NEWS-SENTINEL EDITORIAL: Redistricting reform in Indiana

The Republican majority had a chance during its last legislative session of 2017 to pass redistricting reform in Indiana to take politics out of the process and turn it over to a citizens committee. In the next session of the General Assembly, which begins Wednesday, they have a chance to try again.

Senate Bill 159, co-authored by Republicans John Ruckelshaus of Indianapolis and Michael Bohacek of Michiana Shores, will be presented in the first session of 2018, which will extend through March 14. It would create a bipartisan commission to draw legislative and congressional districts. The commission would be composed of four state lawmakers – one from each political caucus – and five members of the public to be selected by a committee of public university presidents.

Republicans failed to get it done in 2017 because state Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, the committee chairman, wouldn’t even call for a vote on the measure in spite of support from Gov. Eric Holcomb, Senate President Pro Tem David Long and House Speaker Brian Bosma. Legislative leaders could have revived the bill last session, but they didn’t.

The problem is that there are still too many legislators in both parties who do not want to relinquish their ability to use gerrymandering, which is the creative drawing of districts to benefit the party in power. 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).

Because of gerrymandering, Republicans have supermajorities in both the Indiana House and Senate; 40 of 50 seats in the Senate are now controlled by Republicans, as are 71 of the 100 seats in the House. Those percentages don’t reflect the division between Republican and Democrat voters throughout the state, which is roughly 55 percent to 45 percent in favor of the GOP. The Democrat Party has also taken advantage of gerrymandering in the past.

Legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years after the U.S. Census finds out how many people live in each state across the country. The next recount is in 2020. New electoral maps are due the following year.

We believe fairer districts, composed of logical divisions, would likely be more competitive districts. More competitive districts could mean better voter turnout, which has been pathetically low for many years. How can voters get excited about an election if they know their votes won’t affect the outcome? Gerrymandering fosters crippling divisiveness between political parties and apathy among voters.

Will our legislators pass reform?

Julia Vaughn, the policy director for Common Cause Indiana, told CNHI News Indiana she thinks it has a chance. She said she has been traveling throughout the state to promote a more open and fair process and said, “The growth in grassroots support has been tremendous.”

But unless that grassroots support translates into voters putting pressure on their representatives to do so, legislators may do nothing. So contact them today and ask them to do it right.