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12/5/2017 6:31:00 PM
La Porte City Council mulls redistricting reform, then tables proposal urging it

Jon Gard, Herald-Argus

La PORTE — A resolution urging state lawmakers to adopt comprehensive redistricting reform drew a long discussion about why it was needed, how it would work and who would be held accountable.

Ultimately, however, members of the La Porte City Council voted to table the measure Monday.

Periodic redrawing of electoral and political district boundaries to account for changes in population helps ensure an equal number of people in each district and upholds the constitutional principal of “one person, one vote,” according to Leigh Morris, former mayor of La Porte and a member of the Better Government Study Group.

“The concept of redistricting is very simple and clear, but the execution of it is not,” Morris told council members.

Skewing the process is the long-standing practice of gerrymandering, by which the political party in power gains special advantage over the opposition party by manipulating the boundaries of electoral districts to create incumbent-protected districts.

In the 2014 election, 44 or of the 100 seats in the Indiana House were uncontested in the general election. That same year, Morris said, Indiana had the lowest voter turnout in the nation.

The Indiana General Assembly in 2015 created a committee of legislators and citizens to study how other states handle redistricting and to propose reforms for Indiana. Recommendations were incorporated into legislation proposed earlier this year.

The bill had bipartisan support, Morris said, but the chairman of the Elections Committee refused to allow a vote.

Lawmakers are expected to introduce the legislation again in the upcoming session.

Michigan City, Valparaiso, South Bend, Carmel and about a dozen other cities have already approved the resolution in support of comprehensive restricting reform, Morris said.

Council member Tim Stabosz, who introduced the resolution and later seconded a motion to table it pending further discussion, said the “high-minded legislation” supported by the resolution is designed to protect the democratic process. He urged the council to exercise its “moral authority” by insisting state lawmakers to “do the right thing.”

“They need our leadership,” Stabosz said.

The resolution states the existing process creates a conflict of interest with incumbents “effectively choosing their own constituents.” It states the redistricting process should be conducted “in an open manner with real opportunities for public dialogue and feedback, not behind closed doors.”

Fourteen other state have adopted some form of bi-partisan or nonpartisan redistricting, according to Morris.

In Indiana, the legislators of each party would select the first four redistricting commissioners, with the other five selected from a pool of 12 “independent” candidates endorse by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court and the presidents of Indiana, Purdue and Ball State universities.

Members of the commission would be required to follow rules such as making districts contiguous, compact and nearly equal in population. Districts would also have to avoid breaching precinct or community boundaries. An affirmative vote of at least seven of the nine commissioners would be needed to take action on any question.

Council member Rene Scherer, a Democrat, questioned the wisdom of leaving an important part of the process to an “elite commission” not directly accountable to voters.

Fellow council member Roger Galloway, a Republican, agreed, saying he doubted a state run by one party could produce an even-handed process.

“That’s why we elect lawmakers, so if we don’t like what they do we can vote them out,” he said.

However, council member Miles Fettinger, a Democrat, said the process is already flawed, tainted by politics and in need of a remedy, with districts in many areas of the country drawn in such a way that some politicians “can stay in power indefinitely.”

“I believe this proposal achieves the accountability you’re looking for,” Stabosz, a Republican, told doubters. “It carves out a process that has integrity and is good for all of us.”

Redrawn every 10 years, after the decennial census, are Indiana’s nine congressional districts, 100 state House seats, and 50 state Senate seats.

The commission would draw new maps, make them available for public review and suggested changes, present the maps at public hearings throughout the state and submit them to the Legislature for final approval, as required by the state Constitution, with only limited changes permitted.

Morris, who served as a Republican mayor from 2004 to 2007, said he was pleased the council tabled the issue, giving members time to talk with their constituents.

“It’s always wise, whenever appropriate, to take the time to think through important issues such as this,” Morris said.

The 2018 legislative session is scheduled to convene no later than Jan. 8. 

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Editor, John C. DePrez Jr.; Executive Editor, Carol Rogers; Publishers: IBRC and IAR

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