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NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Court’s ruling should spur redistricting reform

When the Supreme Court ruled last month that partisan gerrymandering isn’t an issue for federal courts to police, it cleared the way for states to handle the issue. That’s as it should be.

Gerrymandering is the creative drawing of districts to benefit the party in power. Republicans are a supermajority in the Indiana General Assembly, so Democrats are particularly keen on the issue, but historically, whatever party is in power takes advantage.

In the current system too many legislators in both parties do not want to relinquish their ability to gerrymander districts. Incumbent parties traditionally try to disenfranchise opposition voters by “packing” them (putting large numbers of them into a few districts to concentrate their votes) and “cracking” them (spreading them among multiple districts to dilute their influence).

In the 5-4 ruling by the Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, said, “Federal judges have no license to reallocate political power between the two major political parties, with no plausible grant of authority in the Constitution and no legal standards to limit and direct their decisions.”

Federal courts do police racial gerrymandering, in which lines are drawn to minimize the voting power of a minority. But the court ruled that is a matter of fundamental equal protection rights. Questions about which political party benefits from a map, the justices said, are best left to voters and their representatives to figure out.

Our position is that gerrymandering fosters crippling divisiveness between political parties and apathy among voters and that state lawmakers need to enact reform.

Advocates of reform in Indiana sought support in this year’s session of the General Assembly for a redistricting commission of citizens to be in charge of drawing the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts. But a bill that would have created that commission failed to get out of committee.

So in March we wrote in support of an alternative, Senate Bill 105, which passed in the Senate, but it only deals with one element of redistricting reform, which is the criteria used to draw the district maps. It did not address who is drawing the maps, but rather would leave the state legislators in charge of drawing their own districts. The bill died in the House without a hearing.

But while, once again, our lawmakers failed to enact meaningful redistricting reform in the General Assembly during this past session, the Supreme Court ruling may actually rejuvenate the effort.

House Democratic Leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, said he plans to file legislation during the 2020 General Assembly that would require an independent redistricting panel to draw new maps with minimal changes for the Legislature to approve.

Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census. The next recount is in 2020, so new electoral maps will be due the following year.

“The people of Indiana have made it clear that they want legislative and congressional districts drawn by a nonpartisan commission,” GiaQuinta said in a story by the Northwest Indiana Times. “The responsibility now lies with the Indiana House and Senate Republicans to act on their wishes.”

Julia Vaughn, director of Common Cause Indiana, told the Northwest Indiana Times that “Hoosiers have had enough and want a new system in place by 2021.”

Districts should be drawn with a priority on identifying logical, geographically congruent boundaries that distribute populations evenly without regard to partisan data. The Supreme Court rightly put responsibility for redistricting in the hands of the states. Now it is up to our legislators to enact meaningful reform that

puts Indiana voters, not parties, first in the redistricting process.

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