Indiana needs fair districts for elections

KPC News

During the next 18 months, a special committee will look at changing the way Indiana draws its districts for state legislators and members of Congress.

A potential change would take the process out of the hands of legislators and give it to an independent commission.

The idea would be to make the process more fair and less subject to partisan politics. When the majority party in the General Assembly draws the districts, it creates suspicion that the districts are designed to protect its members and assure their re-election, with the potential of gaining an even bigger majority.

To their credit, Republicans who control the Indiana General Assembly are leading the move to consider a change.

Speaker of the House Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, wrote the law that sets up a study committee for redistricting. Senate President David Long, R-Fort Wayne, co-sponsored it.

The law passed this spring calls for a committee, including several members who are not elected officials, to submit recommendations by Dec. 1, 2016.

But sometime this month, a U.S. Supreme Court decision could derail this train. The court will issue its ruling in an Arizona case that challenges the whole idea of independent commissions — at least for congressional districts.

All states draw new election districts every 10 years, based on new census information. In response to reform movements, 13 states give the main responsibility for to independent commissions.

Eight other states involve an independent commission to give advice on new districts, or to draw a plan if the legislature can’t agree. Indiana is one of the states that would use a commission as a last resort — although only for congressional districts.

In Arizona, an independent commission draws districts — and the state legislature sued to stop the process. Arizona legislators contend that the U.S. Constitution says a state’s legislature should control the process of electing its U.S. senators and representatives.

After oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court in March, observers seemed to think the Arizona legislature is likely to win the case.

If the Supreme Court does not upset the apple cart, Indiana should look carefully at a new way of drawing districts.

A study by an organization known as Fair Vote concludes that 85 percent of U.S. House seats are “truly safe,” with election victory almost guaranteed for the party now in office. Only 3 percent are rated as “toss-ups” where the election could go either way.

In Indiana, Fair Vote rates all nine congressional seats as safe — seven for Republicans and two for Democrats. In each of those districts, the majority party is likely to win 58 percent or more of the votes. Republicans now hold all the seats except for those representing northwest Indiana and Indianapolis.

With more fair districts, Indiana’s congressional delegation might have six Republicans and three Democrats, Fair Vote says.

Whether an independent commission would draw better districts depends on how it is designed. In other states, commissions range from three members to as many as 15. Legislators and other elected officials appoint the members in most cases. But in some states, judges and even political party chairs get involved.

If the Supreme Court rules against independent commissions for redistricting, an advisory commission still might be legal for Indiana.

Whatever happens, Indiana Republican leaders deserve thanks for agreeing to look at a better way of making elections more fair. A ballot filled with competitive races could improve Indiana’s lackluster record of voter turnout.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.