INDIANAPOLIS — Standing shoulder-to-shoulder before the Senate Elections Committee, members of the Indiana Coalition for Independent Redistricting urged lawmakers to approve new redistricting standards Monday.
With blue-and-gold “All IN for Democracy” picket signs and office clocks raised high, coalition members waited more than two hours to voice one central demand: that legislators put an end to partisan gerrymandering.
“Gerrymandering is no longer an art. It is a science,” said 17-year-old Christian Omoruyi, a senior at Columbus East High School in Columbus, Indiana, on behalf of the independent redistricting coalition for the second consecutive year. “Politicians have surgically manipulated district boundaries to ingratiate themselves with the kulaks of the party machine.”
Omoruyi and other advocates’ concerns, of course, are not isolated to the 2019 legislative session. But a solution might be closer than ever before.
Senate Bill 105, authored by committee Chair Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, would establish a series of new standards for the General Assembly as members redraw district lines following population reapportionment, which occurs each decade after the completion of the federal census.
Should SB 105 become law, it would require congressional and state legislative redistricting processes to consider how districts reflect minority voices and to limit how legislators can minimize divisions in neighborhoods, public school corporations and other entities that would share common interests in an election. It also forces legislators to publicly disclose any deviation from these standards.
But advocates for tighter redistricting rules say the measure, though it offers strong guidelines to protect the public interest, ultimately fails to promote comprehensive reform, considering the General Assembly would still oversee district map development and approval.
“Redistricting reform is a two-part equation, and redistricting standards are only one part of it,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, while testifying before the committee. She said a citizen’s commission is the best way to ensure redistricting is fair and representative of all voters.
Vaughn added that lawmakers should provide the same mapping software used by the General Assembly in drawing district lines to the general public, ideally through a website, and census data used in determining the state’s districts.
“In this way, the public can act as a check and balance on legislative maps,” Vaughn continued.
Reform advocates like Vaughn and Omoruyi pointed to Senate Bill 91, authored by Sens. John Ruckelshaus, R-Indianapolis, Mike Bohacek, R-Michiana Shores, and Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, as the legislature’s best chance of placing control in the hands of the public.
Their bill would establish a nine-member commission tasked with redistricting, consisting of four members appointed by legislative leadership and five members of the general public, who would be subject to an application process before receiving a seat on the commission.
To further prevent the General Assembly from playing a direct role in district map creation, Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment to SB 105 that would leave task up to the Legislative Services Agency.
Walker argued it is the constitutional duty of legislators to implement redistricting measures.
Sen. Mike Gaskill, R-Pendleton, voted no on SB 105. His colleague, Sen. Erin Houchin, R-Salem, joined him, saying districts are not subject to partisan gerrymandering.
“The maps in Indiana, according to the last drawing of the maps, were not gerrymandered,” Houchin said. “I’m not opposed to the standards, but this bill assumes we can’t draw fair maps. We are charged with drawing the maps. We should not recede that responsibility to unelected bureaucrats. There is no such thing, in my opinion, as a nonpartisan board.”
SB 105, after passing in a 5-2 vote, now moves to the Senate floor. SB 91 is assigned to the Senate Elections Committee but has yet to be reviewed.
Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.