Redistricting Minnesota: A New And Better Solution Emerges
Last Thursday at Drinking Liberally Minneapolis we were treated to a discussion of the census, redistricting, how redistricting is done in Minnesota, and how it could be done better. Topics like this are what the kids these days refer to as “click bait” and what has made Drinking Liberally Minneapolis such a hot ticket.
This discussion was led by State Senator Melisa Franzen and the Executive Director of Common Cause Minnesota, Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera, and primarily concerned the various bills working their way through the Minnesota Legislature right now dealing with redistricting, specifically the establishment of an independent redistricting commission. Retired OAH judge and chair of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board George Beck was also there and participated in the discussion.
Before getting into the specifics of SF2575, it’s worth going through all the bills currently simmering in the place in which bills simmer.
The Redistricting Commission Bills Currently Simmering In The Legislature
Senate authors: Kiffmeyer (R), Howe (R)
House companion: HF2421
House authors: Schultz (DFL)
The biggest thing that SF2255 has going for it is that its chief author is also the chair of the Senate State Government Finance and Policy and Elections Finance Committee, Republican Mary Kiffmeyer.
This bill calls for the creation of a constitutional amendment, so it would have to also be passed by voters to go into effect, but going into effect would mean being added to the state constitution. This has both advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is that a future governor and legislature can’t get rid of the bill through the normal legislative process and enact their own partisan maps. The disadvantage is that making changes to address unforeseen issues or in other ways make the process better, also can’t happen through the normal legislative process.
Like all of the bills this one involves the Majority and Minority Leaders of the Senate and the House selecting members of the commission. Unlike all the other bills the people selected by the legislative leaders cannot be current or former judges, an interesting twist. Also unlike all of the other bills there is no tie-braking fifth member selected by the other members, instead the commission has only four members and a plan requires a three-fourths vote to be approved. The bill contains no language to address the very likely possibility that the commission cannot agree on a map.
The result of a deadlock would presumably just throw the issue back to the courts.
This bill would also enshrine a set of redistricting principals into the state constitution. The ordering of those principals is, how should I put this, not the best. The most obvious red flag for me is the elevation of the principal of compactness to the very top of the list of principles, shoehorning it with the contiguity principal. The problem with the compactness principle is that it is vague, almost without meaning.
It may be visually pleasing to have compact looking districts but there is nothing about the compactness of a district or lack thereof that has anything to do with the quality of the district lines. Compactness is a redistricting principle of doubtful merit that, in this bill, has been elevated to the most important of principles, more important even than population equality, which I shouldn’t need to remind anyone is the entire point of redistricting in the first place.
Additionally, the principle of minority representation, which historically has really just meant whether or not a district conforms to the Voting Rights Act, is listed behind principles such as preserving political subdivisions (like cities) and not adversely impacting one party over the other (usually meaning not drawing five Republican members into districts with other Republicans and drawing no Democrats in districts with other Democrats). The problem with this ordering is that the Voting Rights Act is federal law while preserving political subdivisions and not adversely impacting one party or the other are not.
Meaning that the ordering of the redistricting principals in the Kiffmeyer bill is very likely illegal*.
* I am not a lawyer and my opinion of what is and is not legal as regards the Voting Rights Act should probably be taken with some number of grains of salt.
Senate authors: Rest (DFL), Isaacson (DFL), Marty (DFL), Cwodzinski (DFL), Klein (DFL)
House companion: HF1855
House authors: Schultz (DFL)
This is the long talked about in Minnesota five retired judges plan and like the Kiffmeyer bill, this bill is proposed as a constitutional amendment. If you’re not familiar with the five retired judges plan, it calls for the four partisan caucus leaders, the Majority and Minority leaders of the House and Senate, to appoint one retired judge each. These four retired judges then appoint one more retired judge to make a five member commission. The redistricting principles used and the ordering of those principles will be determined by the commission and a new redistricting plan is adopted based on a majority vote of the five judges.
I don’t really have much to say about this plan; it’s been kicking around Minnesota for at least two decades and essentially codifies the way redistricting has been done in Minnesota for the last fifty years except that the legislature appoints the judges instead of the Minnesota Supreme Court, making the commission even more political in nature than it historically has been.
Senate authors: Rest (DFL), Isaacson (DFL), Franzen (DFL), Jensen (R)
House companion: HF1018
House authors: Schultz (DFL), Dehn (DFL), Bahner (DFL), Persell (DFL), Nelson (DFL), Freiberg (DFL), Huot (DFL), Olson (DFL), Youakim (DFL), Carlson (DFL), Ecklund (DFL), Bierman (DFL), Fischer (DFL), Noor (DFL), Lippert (DFL), Sauke (DFL), Long (DFL)
This bill is like the five retired judges plan except that it is not a constitutional amendment, and the commission would be purely advisory in nature, the ultimate power to enact the plans or not would be with the legislature and governor.
This plan, like the Kiffmeyer bill, sets out the redistricting principles to be used and the order in which to apply them. While compactness is not as high on this ordering as it is in the Kiffmeyer bill, it is still too high for an entirely arbitrary principle. Moreover, a principle I’ve never actually encountered before pops up in this bill: cores of prior districts. The bill defines this as, “districts should attempt to preserve the cores of prior districts where that can be done in compliance with the preceding principles.”
Cores of prior districts is just another way of saying incumbent protection of course. This is a bad redistricting principal. Where compactness is bad because it’s arbitrary, this is much worse because it’s not arbitrary but actively seeks to maintain the status quo.
Listed towards the bottom are also competition and proportionality principals. To comply with these principals the map makers would have to look at partisan voting data to draw the maps. Which opens up a pretty big can of worms.
Competition is defined as; “districts should be drawn to encourage electoral competition where that can be done in compliance with the preceding principles. A district is competitive if the plurality of the winning political party in the territory encompassed by the district, based on statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last ten years, has historically been no more than eight percent.”
Proportionality is defined as; “The statewide proportion of districts whose voters, based on statewide state and federal partisan general election results during the last ten years, favor each political party should reasonably correspond to the statewide preferences of the voters of this state where that can be done in compliance with the preceding principles.”
These principals are both listed below preserving the cores of prior districts, towards the very bottom of the list of principals. So partisan voting data is being introduced into the process for two principals that will only matter around the very fringes of the district lines. If I was a cynical person, and I am a very cynical person, I would think that adding these principals is a way to get the partisan voting data into the process for incumbent protection purposes, and by ranking them at the bottom, the principals won’t actually make the districts more competitive or proportional.
Senate authors: Franzen (DFL), Abler (R)
House companion: HF1605
House authors: Klevorn (DFL), Halverson (DFL), Huot (DFL), Sandell (DFL), Schultz (DFL), Richardson (DFL), Christensen (DFL), Long (DFL), Freiberg (DFL), Bierman (DFL), Edelson (DFL), Lippert (DFL), Cantrell (DFL)
This is the bill we heard about at Drinking Liberally Minneapolis last Thursday and is my personal favorite of all the bills listed in this post. It sticks with the five retired judges model, four picked by the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate and House, and those four judges then pick the fifth judge. But this bill doesn’t stop there. It also provides for the appointment of twelve citizen members, making the redistricting commission 17 members in size, with slightly less than 30% of those members being retired judges.
The details of who is not eligible for the commission are essentially anyone who has served in any kind of elected office, been a political staffer or been a high ranking member of a political party, or anyone who is in the immediate family of any of those people:
The following persons are not eligible to serve as a commissioner:
(1) a person who is not eligible to vote;
(2) a person under a contract with, or who serves as a consultant or staff to, or who has an immediate family relationship with the governor, a member of the legislature, or a member of Congress; and
(3) a person, or member of the person’s immediate family, who has done any of the following during the ten years immediately preceding the date of application:
(i) been appointed to, elected to, or a candidate for federal or state office;
(ii) served as an officer, employee, or paid consultant of a political party or of the campaign committee of a candidate for elective federal or state office;
(iii) served as an elected or appointed member of a political party state central committee;
(iv) registered as a federal, state, or local lobbyist or principal;
(v) served as paid congressional or legislative staff; or
(vi) violated the candidate contribution limits in section 10A.27.
As for how people get on the commission, first the Secretary of State filters the list of applicants to a total of 120 that “to the extent practical, reflect the gender, socioeconomic, age, racial, language, ethnic, and geographic diversity of the state.” These final 120 applicants will consist of 40 DFLers, 40 Republicans and 40 voters unaffiliated with either party (the bill defines this as 40 people of the largest political party in the state, 40 people of the second largest political party and 40 people unaffiliated with either the first or second largest parties).
From this list of 120 applicants, the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate and House would each be able to strike 21, seven from each partisan bucket. For a total of 28 applicants from each bucket potentially being struck. From this list of the Secretary of State will randomly draw four people from each partisan bucket, these are the twelve public members of the commission.
The list of principles for this bill is also different from the others. Whereas SF582 specifically calls for competitiveness and proportionality to be redistricting principals, things that can only really be achieved by looking at partisan voting data, the very first principle in this bill would disallow the use of any partisan voting data when drawing the maps.
It also prioritizes communities of interest ahead of maintaining political subdivisions, and the thing that pleases me the most, the bill prioritizes compactness very low.
While this bill still keeps the legislature involved to a minimal degree, they get to appoint a minority of the commission and get to strike potential commissioners, the final make-up of the commission is certain to be more representative of the state than the commissions created by any of the other bills in this post. For that reason alone it is the superior bill.
That’s four redistricting commission bills; the Kiffmeyer bill, the five judge bill, the watered down incumbent protection version of the five judge bill and an actual citizens redistricting commission bill.
The Kiffmeyer bill, SF2255, is bad because the commission it creates is almost certain to deadlock and it would enshrine that ineffective system in the state constitution.
SF582, the watered down incumbent protection version of the five judge bill, is also bad as it would give the legislature veto power over maps and it prioritizes keeping the cores of the current districts intact as much as possible, using as a starting point the current map.
SF2233, the five judge bill, has the downside of being the five judge bill, but has the upside of ensuring that a future legislature can’t easily dismantle the law on a partisan whim.
And lastly the actual citizens redistricting commission SF2575. Of all the bills considered here this one would be the best way to do redistricting in Minnesota because it’s an actual citizens redistricting commission. The people who should be responsible for drawing the maps should be the people most affected by the maps. And while I can understand why legislators would think that they are in fact the ones most affected by new maps, they are not.
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