Legislation to rejigger Minnesota’s redistricting system passed the state Senate last week and now awaits House action next year.
By constitutional mandate, redistricting takes place every 10 years: Each state’s legislature must redraw the lines that define congressional and legislative districts. But it rarely happens the same way twice; when politicians fail, judges step in to finish the job.
Stakes are especially high in Minnesota, as the state may lose a congressional seat after the 2010 U.S. Census reapportionment. And if Minnesota loses a congressional seat, the redistricting process will decide whether the district of Republican Rep. Michele Bachmann or another incumbent will be relegated to the history books.
The bill, carried by Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller (DFL-Minneapolis), takes up recommendations from a group led by former Vice President Walter Mondale and former Gov. Arne Carlson.
The Mondale-Carlson group (technically, the Advisory Board for the Minnesota Redistricting Project of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota) proposed saving time and sweat by getting judges to draw congressional- and legislative-district lines before legislators themselves get involved. The reverse sequence — Legislature, then courts — is responsible for the state’s current political lines.
But some who were among the closest to the work of reshaping Minnesota’s political boundaries last time around seem to think the existing system worked pretty well.
Redistricting reform got nowhere last session, but this year Pogemiller pushed through his bill by a vote of 39–28 in the final days before the state Legislature adjourned. Next stop: the House’s Committee on State and Local Government Operations Reform, Technology and Elections, which could hold discussions on the topic before considering the bill itself when the legislative session resumes in February, according to legislative staff.
Reform advocates, led by Mondale and Carlson, have argued (pdf) that the current system is “broken” — badly enough that it won’t do for the next round of redistricting after the 2010 census.
The new system would create a commission of five retired appeals court judges to make the first maps of new district boundaries based on the latest census data. The majority and minority caucuses from both the House and the Senate would appoint one judge each. The four judges would together choose a fifth to join them.
Their first plan would go to the Legislature for an up-or-down vote — no changes allowed. If that fails to pass, the commission would work up a second plan, which again would be subject to an up-or-down vote by the Legislature. Only if the second plan fails to pass would legislators have a chance at concocting their own plan.
Demographic estimates predict the count in Minnesota may fall about 2,000 people short of the number needed to retain the state’s current complement of eight congressional districts. If that happens, the question of which party’s incumbent loses a seat in Congress will fall to the state’s redistricting process — and will likely make the decennially debilitating battles over creating new legislative boundaries look like cake walks.
So the rules for what could become a titanic game of musical chairs matter deeply. And exactly who applies those rules depends on who wins the race for governor next year. If Democrats retain control of the state Legislature but lack veto-proof majorities in both houses, then a Republican in the governor’s mansion keeps things complicated, as both the state’s legislative and executive branches must approve a new plan.
On the other hand, if a Democrat succeeds Gov. Tim Pawlenty, the struggle for the DFL becomes one of drawing the most advantageous plan possible under constitutional requirements.
The last time the state took on this task, after the 2000 census, it was not simply a matter for one party, or even two. For the first time, redistricting was a three-way partisan game: The Independence Party’s Jesse Ventura was governor, Republicans held the House, and the DFL controlled the Senate.
Each assigned a staffer to draw a redistricting plan. (Wielding somewhat less influence were the minority caucuses from each legislative body, whose redistricting staffers included one Michael Brodkorb for the Senate Republicans.)
Veterans of the trenches
Over the past few weeks, the Minnesota Independent interviewed key staffers from each party as well as the man who ran redistricting for the state Legislature: Peter Wattson, now secretary of the Senate.
All had a hand in drawing — or, in Wattson’s case, evaluating — maps that eventually got redrawn by the courts. But all seem satisfied by the result.
Wattson said the redistricting process last time was “pretty orderly, actually.”
Greg Peppin, who drew redistricting maps for the Republican House majority, recalls that “everyone felt that the plan was pretty fair.”
Vic Thorstenson, Peppin’s counterpart for Senate Democrats, said: “We were pretty happy with the court’s plan.”
Joe Mansky, who represented Ventura and the Independence Party, concurred: “We were pretty happy with the outcome,” he said.
That doesn’t mean all four oppose Pogemiller’s plan. Thorstenson and Wattson still work at the Capitol and wouldn’t give their opinions on the reform proposal.
Peppin, now a political consultant, said “the process is just steeped in politics” and reckons that a judicial panel assigned first crack at drawing maps “will not be able to do it better than the Legislature.”
Mansky supports the plan, in part because it hearkens back to a commission Ventura formed for the same purpose.
Popularity and obscurity
In his current role as elections manager for Ramsey County, Mansky became a familiar face this year to the dedicated followers of the Norm Coleman/Al Franken Senate race, due to long hours he spent on the witness stand of the recent election-contest trial.
But seven years ago, the trio toiled over their redistricting maps in relative obscurity — outside of the state Capitol, that is.
“We mapmakers were very popular,” Peppin recalls. Legislators of every stripe were eager to know how things were shaping up — particularly for their home districts. “There was a reason for changing the locks and giving us all fresh keys,” he said.
Thorstenson’s recalls his home-away-from-home during those days the same way: “I was in a room at the State Capitol that even the janitors weren’t allowed to go into.”
Coming: Scenarios past mapmakers see for the redistricting to come
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