Mike Dean is executive director of Common Cause Minnesota.
A week ago, groups of legislators could be seen huddled around maps throughout the State Capitol. This curious sight only occurs once every decade, as legislators attempt to decipher the new redistricting maps that the court makes public.
To people outside the Capitol, redistricting is still largely a mystery. However, this process of redrawing political boundaries has a profound impact on who wins the next election and ultimately determines the composition of the Minnesota Legislature and U.S. Congress. The Minnesota Constitution gives legislators the power to draw their own district lines. However, in the last 50 years, the Legislature has succeeded in drawing the lines only once. Usually the courts have had to step in and finish the job. By any rational standard this process would be considered a failure.
The fact is that Minnesota's redistricting process is broken, and this year was no different. The process started with the GOP majorities in the Minnesota Legislature drawing the maps behind closed doors during the legislative session. When the maps demonstrated a heavy bias toward Republicans, Gov. Mark Dayton vetoed the maps.
But what Dayton's party did was also not a model of transparency. During the legislative session, the DFL failed to produce a map for public scrutiny. In fact, the DFL released its map at the last possible moment during the court proceeding so that the public could not provide feedback to the court. The process finally concluded last week with the court's release of the new maps.
Having the court draw the lines is better than the alternative of having legislators draw their own districts. As we have seen in too many states, such as Illinois and Wisconsin, when legislators choose their voters, the voters are deprived of a real choice at election time. This process of gerrymandering is too often used to protect incumbent legislators by manipulating how the lines are drawn to ensure that a particular incumbent wins re-election.
Minnesota has mostly avoided these problems because the courts have largely been in control of the redistricting process. The court has done a fair job over the years with the resources that it has, but the courts were never designed to manage redistricting. In the end, redistricting is about drawing new political lines that reflect real communities, and the court is not a body that can effectively gather such information. Too often the status quo prevails, despite changing demographics and shifting community boundaries.
This time, the court decided to adopt a "least change" map, because it is not equipped to make such decisions.
In order for Minnesota to move forward with a truly good map, we must reform the redistricting process. We need an independent redistricting commission. Handing the process over to a group a retired judges and engaged citizens is not that different from what currently happens. Some legislators have rejected this idea; they say that retired judges are not accountable to voters. But the fact is that when politicians choose their voters, they can make sure that they are accountable to no one. It is just like stacking the deck in your favor and then claiming that you are just lucky.
An independent commission will be in a much better position to investigate proper community boundaries and take public comment on new redistricting maps. We need to take this process out of the court and away from the manipulations of legislators.
One of these years, Minnesota's luck will run out on redistricting and we won't get a map drawn by a court. It's time for legislators to huddle not around a new map, but around a new way that we draw maps in Minnesota.