The second meeting of Indiana’s Interim Study Committee on Redistricting, of which I am a lay member, was held yesterday. Despite the fact that it was a Thursday afternoon, and the meeting started at 1:00, there were well over 100 citizens present; they filled the House Chamber and from where I was sitting, it looked like they filled the balcony too.
The purpose of this meeting was to hear expert testimony. (Discussion leading to the committee’s recommendations will come at the next two meetings. I’ll blog the dates and times when I know them.)
There were two presentations; one from a lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, affiliated with New York University Law School, and the second from the Senior Legal Counsel to the Iowa LSA–the person responsible for directing Iowa’s redistricting process.
The Iowa presentation was a description of that state’s use of an independent commission to draw district lines–from all reports, a very successful effort to draw districts in a fair, transparent and nonpartisan way, and one that has earned the strong approval of most Iowa voters.
The first presentation, by Michael Li of the Brennan Center, focused upon the negative consequences of gerrymandering, and the current efforts of several states to reform their processes. He included a couple of interesting points that tend to get lost in discussions about gerrymandering’s more obvious effects.
Li pointed out that the redistricting “nitty-gritty”–the drawing of the lines–isn’t handled by local politicians; instead, the national parties send in teams of “experts” whose expertise is in manipulating data and computer programs, and who know little about the politics or culture of whatever state they are carving up. This dependence on national party operatives facilitates the contemporary shift of power and influence from state policymakers to national ones– further nationalizing America’s political parties.
Li also noted that although redistricting reform might not effect much change to the partisan composition of a state’s legislature, especially in very Red or Blue states, it does tend to change the nature of the partisans who hold those seats. (Social science research supports that observation; in states using independent commissions, Representatives of both parties tend to be less rigidly ideological and more willing to work across the aisle.)
This last observation is particularly important, because one of the arguments used by defenders of the current system (like Senator Hershman today) is to claim there are states where redistricting reform has changed a very minimal number of seats, and that shows the current system isn’t really a problem.
As Li quite properly responded, partisan shift is not the metric we should apply. In Republican states like Indiana, redistricting reform is unlikely to change control of the Senate, for example. If fewer elections are decided in the primaries, if fewer general elections are uncontested, if new people emerge to challenge incumbents, and –when those incumbents die or retire–if there is genuine competition for the open seat, then reform has worked.
When Senator Pat Miller challenged the notion of “nonpartisan” commission members–making the point that everyone has political opinions–Li agreed that most people have what we might call “political orientation,” although he noted that there is a difference between redistricting done by people who are deeply involved in the political process and that done by people who are not politically active. He compared the process to the composition and operation of juries; people serving on juries have prejudices and opinions, but most who serve take their responsibilities very seriously, evaluating the evidence and following the judges’ instructions. ( I found the comparison compelling because when I was a practicing lawyer, I saw juries in operation, and saw the same seriousness of purpose.)
The one thing that seemed clear in the wake of the meeting was that Senators Hershman and Miller are not going to be voting for reform of any kind. But I have high hopes for the rest of us.