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HOWEY: Devil is in the details of Hoosier redistricting

The reason that Washington is mostly grid-locked is that the maps of 2011 kept most incumbents safe in general elections.
The view of the Indiana Statehouse from DroneCam 13. (WTHR)

INDIANAPOLIS — This year, the Indiana General Assembly has two tasks it must complete: Forge a $30 billion-plus biennial budget and draw new maps for congressional and legislative districts.

By this point in time in 2001 and 2011, U.S. Census data was in the hands of Hoosier legislators and their computer-assisted consultants, creating new congressional and General Assembly maps.

This year, because of the pandemic and the Trump administration’s late decision to demand U.S. Census data on illegal immigrants, Indiana’s new maps will be delayed until late summer after the first special session of the Holcomb era is called. It promises to stall the informal start of the 2022 cycle.

In 2001 and 2011, the reapportioned maps were passed by April 29 and signed shortly thereafter by Govs. Frank O’Bannon and Mitch Daniels, setting off the traditional spate of candidacies during the summer and fall months heading into the next cycle. The delay this year means that potential candidates won’t know what district they are in for an additional four months or so.

“At the end of the day, it means we’ll be here after July, trying to figure out redistricting, what those districts look like,” Senate President Pro Tem Rod Bray said last Friday.

While Indiana Democrats had spent much of the last decade pushing for an independent redistricting commission with the support of then-House Speaker Brian Bosma, those reforms were clamped shut in the Senate, which has been controlled for all but two years (1975-76) by the GOP over the past half century.

In 2001, the maps were initially drawn by State Rep. Ed Mahern, D-Indianapolis, who moved in a clockwise manner that began in The Region’s 1st CD, working in the 2nd CD that would feature Kokomo dangling by a string of townships connected to the Michiana-based district, and then the 5th and 6th CDs. After that, he created the new 8th and 9th CDs, with the scraps forging the spindly-shaped 4th CD that ran in elongated fashion from several counties north of the Ohio River to several counties south of Lake Michigan. These maps were largely panned as a classic example of gerrymandering.

By 2011, then-Secretary of State Todd Rokita vowed to end “gerrymandering” by urging the creation of “compact” districts that sought to preserve “communities of interests” while avoiding separating counties, cities and school districts.

The 2001 maps created one of the most competitive decades in state history. While the Indiana Senate stayed monolithically Republican, the Indiana House changed majority hands three times – from Democrat to Republican in 2004 with the election of Gov. Mitch Daniels, back to the Democrats in 2006 mid-term, and then to the GOP in 2010 in the Tea Party mid-term. In 2006, Republican Jon Elrod upset Rep. Mahern by eight votes.

In congressional districts, five incumbents were defeated under the 2001 maps, including 9th CD Democrat Rep. Baron Hill by Mike Sodrel in 2004; Rep. Sodrel by Hill in a rematch in 2006, along with 2nd CD Democrat Joe Donnelly over Chris Chocola, and 8th CD Democrat Brad Ellsworth over Rep. John Hostettler; and 9th CD Republican Todd Young defeating Hill in 2010. A sixth seat changed parties when Republican Larry Bucshon defeated State Rep. Trent Van Haaften in 2010.

While the 2011 maps were compact and not considered “gerrymandered,” the comparison starkly revealed the devil in the details. Not a single congressional incumbent lost in the five election cycles, and only one CD changed parties, when in 2012, Rep. Joe Donnelly decided to seek the Senate seat held by U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar, and Republican Jackie Walorski won the 2nd CD.

In contrast, of the three U.S. Senate races run between 2012 and 2018, two resulted in changed parties.

In the Indiana House, the days of endangered majorities came to an abrupt end. The Republicans went from a 60-seat majority in 2010, to a 69 seats in 2012, 71 seats in 2014, 70 seats in 2016, 67 seats in 2018, and 71 seats in 2020. Hoosier Democrats are basically powerless in the shaping of the new maps later this year.

The shapes of the 2011 maps appeared to mesmerize the Hoosier political world while creating a competitive desert. Gov. Daniels called them a “huge improvement on the 2001 gerrymander.” Late in the decade, Daniels appeared to realize what the lack of competition meant, suggesting “salamander-shaped districts.”

Common Cause’s Julia Vaughn was also caught in the geometry trap, saying, “They seem to be far, far better, and to meet any reasonable test of compactness and respecting communities of interest.”

The uncompetitive, compact districts helped create an Indiana that by 2014 had one of the worst voter participation cycles in the nation. The Indiana Citizens Action Coalition observed, “In 2014, 54 of the 125 candidates for the Indiana House and Senate had no opponents. As a result, Indiana’s voter turnout rate was the lowest in the country at 28 percent. In 2016, 35 of the 125 candidates for the Indiana House and Senate had no opponents. In 2018, 37 out of 125 seats were unchallenged.”

The reason that Washington is mostly grid-locked is that the maps of 2011 kept most incumbents safe in general elections, and susceptible to primary challenges, which continues to empower the fringes of both parties.

The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.

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