Minnesota's next governor could play a large role in shaping the state's political landscape well beyond his time in office.
The new governor, along with the Legislature, will redraw Minnesota's political map to reflect the population shifts of the 2010 census. Those new districts, which must be ready in time for the 2012 election, will remain in place for the next decade.
Along with erasing a projected $5.8 billion budget deficit, redistricting looms as one of the biggest jobs awaiting the new governor and the Legislature. But the candidates who talk endlessly about the budget rarely mention redrawing the boundaries of Minnesota's eight congressional districts and 201 legislative districts.
University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs says many incumbent legislators view redistricting as a secret perk, and a key to their political survival.
"This is one of the most bare-knuckled decisions that the legislators will make in 2011 and 2012," said Jacobs. "It's something that's not talked about this fall, but I can guarantee you every incumbent is already thinking about the new map that will be coming out next year. And it is entirely based on each party trying to maximize the number of districts that tilt in their direction."
Government watchdogs also have a critical view of the current redistricting process, which some say gives legislators too much power. Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota, says voters get to decide who their legislators are. But through redistricting, Dean says those legislators can decide who their voters are.
"Technology has evolved significantly over the last 30 years, where politicians are really able to craft districts to their own advantage, using census data, using polling data," Dean said. "That creates a process where we have elections that are not competitive, where really the outcome of the election is a foregone conclusion because districts have been crafted in such a way."
There have already been partisan warnings about what could happen if the other side controls redistricting. Republicans fear that Democrats would try to create a geographic disadvantage for U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, the Republican incumbent in the 6th congressional district. Democrats fear that Republicans would try to put the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul into a single congressional district. The cities are in separate districts right now -- each occupied by a Democrat.
“This is one of the most bare-knuckled decisions that legislators will make in 2011 and 2012.”Political scientist Larry Jacobs
But Minnesota lawmakers have rarely had the final word on congressional or legislative boundaries. The courts have had to step in the past five times. Rep. Matt Dean, R-Dellwood, says that's why both sides need to work together on the new map.
"No matter who's in control, the map should be fair and the process should be open and transparent," said Dean. "If that occurs, we will hopefully have a redistricting process that yields a product that would withstand the scrutiny of a court challenge, or prevent a court challenge."
The full scope of Minnesota's redistricting will become clearer in December. That's when preliminary census numbers will determine whether the state keeps its eight congressional districts or loses one.
DFL Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller says losing a district would complicate an already difficult job. Pogemiller was involved in redrawing the last three political maps, but the veteran legislator says he thinks the political motivations of redistricting are often overstated.
"The population shifts determine where you draw the districts more than partisan prerogatives, in most instances," said Pogemiller. "I'm certainly not naive, and I don't want to say that there's no partisan tinge to some of these maps, but I think it's a lot less than people think."
Pogemiller is proposing a new approach to redistricting that would rely on a panel of retired judges to draw the initial map. The state Senate passed the bill last session, but the House did not.
Under current law, legislators will start redrawing boundaries in March 2011, when final census numbers arrive. The new districts must be in place by early 2012, well ahead of that year's primary election.
That means state senators who are elected this year will serve a two-year term, rather than their typical four years, and that they'll have to run again in 2012 -- if they still have districts.