A First Step

If you criticize someone when you think they are wrong, you should be fair enough to applaud them when they do something right. Speaker Brian Bosma has recently done something right, by strongly endorsing HB 1009, Rep. Jerry Torr’s bill to replace gerrymandering with a nonpartisan redistricting process.


The way lines are drawn now is for the majority party to draw as many “safe” seats as possible—more for itself, of course, but also for the minority party, because in order to retain control, the winners need to cram as many of the losers into as few districts as possible, and those districts are also safe. Neighborhoods, cities, towns, townships—even precincts—are evaluated solely on the basis of voting history, and then broken up to meet the political needs of mapmakers. Numbers drive the process—not compactness of districts, not communities of interest, and certainly not democratic competitiveness. And computers have made this process very precise. Most state legislative districts in Indiana are safe for one party or the other. In this system, the interests of real communities are secondary.


Safe districts facilitate special-interest legislation: if you are guaranteed victory every election, it is less important to listen to constituents; easy to become lazy and arrogant. Party preoccupation with gerrymandering consumes an enormous amount of money and energy that could be better directed, while safe seats allow politicians to scuttle popular measures without fear of retribution.

Lack of competitiveness also makes it impossible to trace campaign donations, since unopposed candidates send their “extra” money to those running in competitive districts. (The current scandals surrounding Tom Delay are a case in point.) The most consequential results, however, are voter apathy (why play when the deck’s been stacked?) and the extremism—left and right—that is produced when elections are won or lost in primaries dominated by both parties’ most fervently ideological voters.


HB 1009 is not perfect. It raises legitimate state constitutional issues, and sets arguably incompatible goals. For example, competitive districts are desirable, but it is also important to respect natural community boundaries; if these two goals clash, which is most important? I would argue that an overwhelmingly Republican or Democratic neighborhood or city is entitled to have its majority viewpoint reflected, that the point of redistricting reform should be to move away from districts drawn to achieve political goals, worthy or not. The Torr bill also makes the recommendations of the nonpartisan panel advisory, rather than binding. This was probably an effort to avoid state constitutional issues, but it’s an invitation to partisan wrangling and wheeler-dealing. 


Nevertheless, while it will be very important to do this carefully and avoid making the current mess worse, HB 1009 is a welcome step in the right direction.


For Hoosiers interested in more detail, including information about what other states are doing, and nonpartisan analyses of HB 1009, a new Indiana nonprofit, the American Values Alliance, has valuable resources on its website (www.valuesalliance.org). This is an issue all citizens should care about.