South Bend Tribune

Indiana lawmakers have the perfect opportunity before them to reform the redistricting process, to make for more open and fair elections.

A recent federal court ruling should serve as a nudge to take that opportunity.

Redistricting reform is long overdue in the Hoosier state, given that the current system — which gives the legislature responsibility for drawing its own legislative and congressional districts — has resulted in maps that make it easy for incumbents to get re-elected and nearly impossible for challengers to be competitive. Both Democrats and Republicans have taken advantage of this system over the years, with the voters, whose role in political process has been reduced, coming up the big losers.

Small wonder that the nonpartisan nonprofit FairVote calls redistricting a “blood sport” that allows incumbent politicians to “choose their voters before the voters choose them.”

Of course, partisan gerrymandering — drawing district lines to favor one political party over another — is a national problem. Earlier this month, a federal court struck down North Carolina’s congressional map and ordered the state’s General Assembly to come up with a substitute. The decision was the first striking down of a congressional map, as opposed to a state legislative map, on the grounds that it was rigged in favor of a particular political party.

Indiana legislators could head off any future challenges to its maps this session. Julia Vaughn of Common Cause Indiana, a leading advocate for redistricting reform, warns that if legislators fail to act on reforms this year, they should expect a legal challenge to new maps in 2021.

Senate Bill 159, co-authored by Republicans John Ruckelshaus, of Indianapolis, and Mike Bohacek, of Michiana Shores, would create a bipartisan commission, made up of four state lawmakers — one from each political caucus — and five members of the public. The commission would be responsible for drawing legislative and congressional districts.

The bill’s co-authors say SB 159 is a response to strong demand from their constituents to create a redistricting process that is open and fair.

The measure is similar to the one that died in the last session when Milo Smith, R-Columbus, chairman of the Committee on Elections and Apportionment, blocked a vote on the proposal.

Prospects for SB 159 aren’t good: Senate Elections Committee Chairman Greg Walker, R-Columbus, has indicated that he wants to go in a different direction and will focus on Senate Bill 326, which he authored. The bill would establish redistricting standards for congressional and legislative districts. Walker says Senate Bill 326 defines the “criteria” of redistricting, prioritizing what mapmakers must consider when drawing district boundaries.

But Walker’s bill doesn’t establish an independent redistricting commission.

It’s hardly surprising that legislators (of both parties) have been loathe to change the status quo that gives them an advantage. That’s where their constituents must come in. Legislative and congressional maps are due to be redrawn after the 2020 Census, so there’s not a lot of time to act. Lawmakers need to hear that voters are tired of gerrymandered districts and that it’s time to restore public faith in the electoral process.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to letters@dailyjournal.net