With predictions that Minnesota may lose a Congressional seat, redistricting looms large on the political horizon.
“…the Minnesota State Legislature will receive the census data necessary to redraw the state’s eight congressional districts and 201 legislative districts … Their plans will ultimately take the form of bills for legislative passage. Once the Legislature has passed a redistricting bill, the Governor will have the option of signing it or vetoing it. If he signs the bill, redistricting has been accomplished. If he vetoes the bill, the Legislature might vote to override the veto. If the veto withstands an override attempt, a new bill must be written, passed and sent to the Governor.”
And poof! We have new congressional and legislative maps, just like that. Right?
First, Some Background
The excerpt you just read is from a pamphlet published in 2000 by Minnesota state demographer Tom Gillaspy. That document described in simple language the process by which Minnesota’s political representation for the decade from 1993-2003 would be decided.
This is not a trivial thing. Smaller states with few congressional districts allotted to them simply don’t have much of a choice where to draw the lines. But as states grow larger in comparison to the rest of the country and almost inevitably split political control between the two major parties at the state level, court battles over redistricting issues become inevitable. After all, everyone’s competing for a bigger piece of the same pie.
Congressional redistricting has become one of the most complex and most fought-over political issues of our time. In theory, each district should be contiguous, geographically compact and have about the same population as every other district in the nation. Gerrymandering, the practice of building a congressional district that provides one party or candidate with an advantage but does so at the expense of geographic compactness, is to be avoided.
That’s where the simple explanations end. Legal authorities have long held that under certain circumstances, gerrymandering actually is allowed under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Since racial minorities have been excluded at times from the political process, gerrymandering a state’s districts to create some minority-majority districts (where, if a minority votes as a solid bloc, they could elect a representative with their voting power alone) is permissible. This arises every census cycle in places like Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, where there are large black and Hispanic minorities and plenty of long, funny-looking congressional districts.
Even so, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Davis v. Bandemar that while racial groups could claim the exclusion problem and thus force a new plan to be formulated, political entities could not. This meant that although the Republican legislative majorities in Indiana rammed through a redistricting plan that caused House Democrats to win a much-smaller percentage of seats than the statewide percentage of votes they won, the Indiana Democratic Party had no standing to claim exclusion from the process, and thus had to let the redistricting plan stand.
How have the aforementioned factors affected Minnesota’s congressional map? Since the 1960s, Minnesota has held eight seats in the U.S. House of Representatives. In that time, the state’s demographics have changed considerably. For example, compare the 1994 map to the current map, enacted in 2002. From 1994 to 2002, there were essentially four Greater Minnesota districts, two suburban districts and two urban districts. With the 2002 census, however, the relative population growth in the suburbs to the north and south of the Twin Cities — Eagan, Burnsville, Lakeville, Apple Valley to the south and Anoka, Stearns, and Wright counties in the north — dictated that those areas increase their representation.
This was political reality borne solely out of DFL losses at the state level. If the DFL controlled the governor’s office and both houses of the Legislature, it could have split the growing and generally conservative suburbs into safe DFL districts. But that was not the case. On the contrary, the DFL had lost the House in 1998 to the Republicans and the governor’s mansion to a former pro wrestler running on the Reform Party ticket. Gov. Jesse Ventura was no friendlier to the DFL’s redistricting goals than the Republicans were. With three opposing forces in state government, agreement proved impossible, no one could muster the support to override Ventura’s veto, and the case ended up in the courts.
Four plans were submitted to a court-appointed panel by very different figures. Patricia Cotlow, a lawyer who had been involved in redistricting and minority representation cases in the past, submitted a plan. Other plans were submitted by Ventura, by DFLer and Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe, and by Susan Zachmann on behalf of the Republican Party of Minnesota. .
These plans were quite different from one another. Cotlow’s plan included the 1st, 7th and 8th districts we know today (generally speaking), but that’s where the similarity ends. Under this plan, the 3rd District would have included the western half of Hennepin County and stretched to Benton County to the north. The 2nd District would look a lot like it does today, but the 6th District would wrap from the southwest metro to Fridley, Brooklyn Center and Columbia Heights to Minneapolis’s north.
On its face, it would appear this plan failed the geographic compactness test. Roger Moe’s plan was different, but ultimately had the same issue – it tried to shove much of Dakota County (a relatively conservative area) into the district of a perceived moderate, Jim Ramstad. In theory, this would have made the 3rd District more conservative but preserve the DFL’s advantage in greater Minnesota. This plan also would have split what we know today as the core of the 6th District between Collin Peterson’s 7th and Jim Oberstar’s 8th districts.
But alas, this plan probably failed the geographic compactness test as well. Which brings us to the Zachmann plan. This plan has actually garnered quite a bit of attention of late, but not just because it sought to compress the DFL’s urban advantage into just one district. The plan proposed an 8th District that would have stretched across the Iron Range all the way to the Dakotas, potentially forcing Collin Peterson and Jim Oberstar to reside in the same district. The 7th District would have stretched across the state to the south of the 8th, from Isanti and Chisago counties in the east to Wilkin and Clay in the west. The 1st and 2nd districts would remain relatively intact – the 2nd in the southwest and the first seated in Rochester in the southeast – but the 4th would wrap from New Scandia Township northeast of the metro to Apple Valley and Burnsville in the south, while the 6th would include the northern suburbs from Brooklyn Park to Oak Grove. Add a 3rd District covering the first-ring western suburbs, and you have a plan that turned a four-district metro area with two solid DFL seats, one moderate and one solid Republican into one extremely safe DFL, one moderate and two Republican-leaning districts.
That, my good readers, is redistricting politics in action: compress your opponent’s base in order to make your own candidates more competitive elsewhere. When conservative commentators excitedly discuss “combining the 4th and 5th districts,” this is the plan they advocate and DFLers so vehemently oppose.
However, if you squint really hard at the plan submitted by then-Gov. Ventura, you see something similar to what we have today: three rural districts, an exurban district to the north and another to the south of the Twin Cities, one in the West Metro, and two covering most of the cities themselves. Ventura’s plan called the South Metro suburban district the 6th, and actually may have made that district better for the DFL than our current plan, including St. Paul’s first ring of DFL-leaning suburbs.
But ultimately, the court-appointed panel produced what we have today: the Iron Range, northwest rural areas, southern rural areas, north, south, and west suburbs, and each city with its own district.
Conclusion and Preview
As noted above, Minnesota has had eight House seats since the 1960s. The reason this issue is coming up today is that the state is right on the cusp of losing one of those seats to faster-growing states in the South or Southwest. Nothing is for certain, but what happens if Minnesota goes down to seven seats in 2012? What happens if we remain at eight? Check back in the near future for more research on this topic.