Drawing the lines: When it comes to districts, who should have a say?

In four years, the lawmakers who represent you at the statehouse and in Congress could change, but how those decisions will be made is in question.

During this year’s legislative session, lawmakers considered a proposal that would have named a citizens group to handle the next redistricting process in 2021, instead of state legislators making those decisions. The proposal was not approved, but some local lawmakers said they expect the issue will come up again in the 2018 legislative session.

Redistricting has become an important topic to voters who want to make sure their interests are being represented at the state and federal level, said Julia Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, an organization that seeks to hold public officials accountable to their constituents.

That process, which redraws the boundaries of districts for state senate, state representative and U.S. Congress, will be done again after the next Census in 2020. And one of the key issues that needs to be decided is who will draw those lines.

In the past, that work has been done by state lawmakers, as the state’s constitution states. But the concern with that process is with gerrymandering, where the districts are drawn in a way to keep a certain political party or candidate in office, Vaughn said. That’s why Common Cause Indiana and the League of Women Voters of Indiana teamed up to form the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting, a grassroots effort to change the process so the decision is made by voters, instead of lawmakers, Vaughn said.

“This is the fundamental groundwork for which our elections for the next 10 years will be based,” Vaughn said.

“It can have a big impact on elections.”

The group helped promote the proposal in this year’s legislative session, which wasn’t approved. And they plan to be back again next session, she said.

A key issue with the proposal was a lack of a detailed plan for what would happen if the maps drawn by the committee were rejected by lawmakers, said State Rep. Milo Smith, who represents portions of Columbus and is chairman of the House elections committee.

Under the proposal, if lawmakers were to turn down two proposals from the committee, no process was laid out for what would happen next, Smith said. That proposal also would have required a special session for lawmakers to vote on the proposals, and if it wasn’t approved, money would have been wasted and the process wouldn’t seem very credible, Smith said. And if two proposals were turned down, lawmakers would have the responsibility of creating their own maps, which would also look suspicious, Smith said.

Smith, a Republican, supports redistricting in a way that makes sense, including keeping neighborhoods and geographic areas together, he said. For example, he pushed for redistricting after the last Census that would have put all of his neighborhood into one district, instead of being split in half as it had been, but also removed a section of Johnson County where 70 percent of voters were Republican.

“I don’t want to gerrymander and I don’t want people to think we are drawing it just so we can be re-elected. I feel strongly about that,” Smith said.

But any proposal for reform has to clearly lay out the rules and the process so it is clear from the beginning, Smith said.

The past legislation called for an independent commission of Republicans and Democrats appointed by various state officials and would also include university presidents, many of whose schools receive state funding that is approved by state lawmakers. That could also be a concern if someone were to question if the commission was truly independent, he said.

Smith wants redistricting to be done properly, following geographic boundaries and not decided by politics, but different groups have different ideas of how that should be done, he said.

“I want districts to be fair, and not make a neighborhood not what it is,” Smith said.

“I want to protect the integrity of the General Assembly.”

Voters also want confidence in the system, and lawmakers need to keep that in mind when considering future proposals, said State Rep. John Young, a Republican who represents portions of Johnson County.

But drawing the lines to equally represent each party is likely impossible, Young said.

No matter how the process is done, someone will always argue that politics were involved, said State Rep. Woody Burton, a Republican who represents parts of Johnson County.

Burton wants the redistricting to be done fairly. For 20 years, when Republicans were in the minority at the statehouse, he disagreed with how the maps were drawn, he said. At the time, across the state, 54 percent of voters cast Republican ballots, but Republicans only had 48 percent of the seats, he said.

Now, Republicans have a super majority and the argument is that was achieved due to how the maps are drawn, Burton said.

A citizen committee is likely not the best solution, especially since the legislature has a constitutional duty to handle the redistricting, said State Sen. Greg Walker, a Republican who represents part of Johnson County and is chairman of the Senate election committee.

The key to the process will be to score the suggestions for how the lines should be drawn, whether those come from the public or state lawmakers, Walker said.

The scoring should seek to make the process objective by setting criteria, giving items priority and allowing exemptions when needed, he said. That criteria could include factors such as recognizing existing geographical boundaries and making sure districts are compact and contiguous, Walker said.

“It should be about recognizing communities for what they are, rather than trying to divide or give weight to historical elections or outcomes,” he said.

That would also shine light on the process and give residents a chance to weigh in. And if a voter doesn’t like the way the maps are drawn, they can vote that way in the next election, Walker said.

Walker does not have a proposal drafted yet and may not in the next session, depending on how far he gets with his research. But redistricting is a key issue to him, and he has been attending seminars and talking with state officials about how to involve professionals in the process, fellow lawmakers and county clerks, and is still collecting their feedback, he said.

And both officials and residents need to remember that the way the state votes can change during the years. Years after the state voted for President Barack Obama, voters overwhelmingly selected Republicans. And that could change again, Walker said.

“We should be identifying Hoosiers for who they are instead of trying to categorize them,” Walker said.