The redistricting process should belong to the people

Op-ed – South Bend Tribune – June 29, 2021

The redistricting process should belong to the people. Indiana needs help getting there.

Christopher Brandon Harris, Marilyn Moran-Townsend and Ranjan Rohatgi

Every 10 years post-census enumeration, each state redraws its districts for both the U.S. House of Representatives and its state legislature based on changes in the state’s population. As members of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, we aim to show Hoosiers how the process can work.

Of the three writers of this op-ed, Marilyn Moran-Townsend is a Republican member of the commission, Ranjan Rohatgi is a Democratic member and Christopher Harris is unaffiliated with either of the two major parties. We are invested in ensuring all Hoosiers’ voices are heard in our democracy and have already held 10 public hearings to collect input from concerned Indiana voters. Once the 2020 census data is available, our multi-partisan commission will solicit proposed redistricting maps from Hoosiers, evaluate them according to testimony from public hearings and then present the best maps, which must earn approval from Republican, Democratic and unaffiliated members of the commission, to the Indiana General Assembly for use in redrawing our districts.

We serve on the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission to protect the important role of voters in our democracy and look forward to recommending maps with multipartisan support to the Indiana General Assembly. Currently, Indiana is one of 34 states that gives control of the redistricting process to the state legislature. This setup creates a clear conflict of interest, especially in states with a one-party supermajority: State senators and representatives are responsible for drawing their own districts and those of their political allies and foes.

Politicians in control of the redistricting process often “gerrymander,” drawing district boundary lines to favor one political party. Both major parties have been guilty of partisan gerrymandering. Gerrymandering dilutes voting power and splits up communities like Kokomo, which is partially in the 4th congressional district and partially in the 5th.

The For the People Act (H.R.1/S.1), which was passed by the House, but blocked by Senate Republicans in a recent procedural vote, would have created independent redistricting commissions for drawing congressional districts in every state. However, the fight to pass redistricting reform is far from over, as Democratic senators are continuing negotiations for a revised version of this landmark bill.

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “Government is the strongest of which every man feels himself a part.” And yet, we have heard from Hoosiers in every congressional district who believe their votes do not matter and their voices are not heard by their representatives. The numbers show this: In the last two congressional elections, Republicans garnered 57% of the vote, but secured 78% of the seats, while Democrats received 42% of the vote and took only 22% of the seats. In the 2020 election, eight of Indiana’s nine congressional races were won by more than 16 percentage points — there was no competition. It’s no wonder Indiana’s voter turnout was 42nd out of 50 states. Gerrymandering in Indiana leads to apathy and cynicism towards our democratic process. Fair redistricting is directly linked to talent recruitment and retention for Indiana. In our public hearings, it has been disheartening to hear from young people and their parents that they see no future here because their voices are not heard. Instead, they vote with their feet and relocate to a more welcoming state.

All three of us believe that the redistricting process should belong to the people, but our state needs help getting there. Several bipartisan bills have been introduced in the Indiana state legislature to address gerrymandering in the past four years. In 2020 alone, both such bills died in committee.

Not only would the provisions under the For the People Act create independent redistricting commissions, it would explicitly ban partisan gerrymandering. It would provide the public with access to the census data used for redistricting and establish a clear process for providing feedback to these commissions. More transparency and less partisanship is a good thing for our democracy. In a recent national poll, two-thirds of respondents supported the For the People Act, including majorities of Republican, Democratic and independent voters.

As a federal law, the For the People Act would not address the problem of gerrymandered state districts in Indiana, but its passage would help solve the issue at the federal level and offer a model for fair redistricting. While Republican senators recently blocked the bill’s procedural vote on the Senate floor, the negotiations of what a final bill looks like will continue from the Democratic caucus. When Indiana’s Sens. Mike Braun and Todd Young have the opportunity to support future iterations of this landmark bill, we urge them to affirm Hoosiers’ role in our democracy and their contributions to our state by voting in favor of this important legislation in the future.

Christopher Harris of Hammond, Marilyn Moran-Townsend of Fort Wayne and Ranjan Rohatgi of South Bend are members of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission.