Dr. Joseph Losco and Dr. Raymond Scheele
Bowen Center for Public Affairs
Recently, the U. S. Supreme Court in Arizona State Legislature v. Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission ruled that Arizona’s use of an independent commission to redraw congressional districts is constitutional. By 5-4, the court ruled that the commission created by a ballot initiative in Arizona does not violate the U.S. Constitution’s Elections Clause which states that “the times, places and manner of holding elections for senators and representatives, shall be prescribed in each state by the Legislature thereof.” In making this ruling, the Court agreed with the Independent Commission’s contention that the definition of “legislature” in the clause goes beyond just the legislative body to include laws passed by voters through initiatives and referenda.
While the Indiana constitution does not permit referenda of the sort Arizona used to press its case for an independent redistricting commission, Hoosiers have expressed their views on adopting this practice in our 2010 Hoosier Survey. That was the year that then Secretary of State Todd Rokita (now U.S. Congressman from the 4th District) traveled the state discussing redistricting reform legislation that would establish guidelines for the legislative redistricting process following the census. The Indiana Senate also passed legislation that year that would establish a redistricting study committee to examine best practices from other states, including adopting an independent commission to draw the maps.
Our survey reported that Hoosiers were interested in fair redistricting guidelines but were not enthusiastic about employing an independent reapportionment commission. While only 38% favored the use of a nonpartisan commission, 48% favored keeping the process already in use by the state. This finding held across both political parties as well as all regions of the state, although southern Indiana counties provided the highest level of support for the status quo. Nevertheless, by overwhelming majorities, Hoosiers wanted redistricting to respect township and county borders (76%), keeping adjacent communities together (75%), clustering state house districts within senate districts (66%), and the formation of compact districts (61%). In other words, Hoosiers favored employing fairer practices to guide lawmakers in redistricting but did not approve of using an independent commission to draw boundary lines. There is no language in the Indiana Constitution to specify how districts are to be mapped other than that state legislative districts must be contiguous. Despite this limitation, redistricting by the Republican dominated legislature in 2012 faced little opposition from Democrats in the General Assembly and was generally given high marks for its transparency, if not for the final results it delivered.
Thirteen states currently give advisory commissions primary authority in drawing district lines although specific procedures vary by state. Maine, New York, and Vermont use independent commissions in an advisory capacity but final decisions rest with the legislature. Five states (Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Texas) use independent commissions as back-ups if the legislature fails to meet certain deadlines. Iowa relies on non-partisan legislative staff but does not permit them the use of political or election data. With regard to Congressional districts, Indiana employs a “fallback” commission if the legislature is unsuccessful in passing a congressional plan. The Commission consists of the Speaker of the Indiana House, the President Pro Tem of the Indiana Senate, the Chair of the Elections Committee of the Indiana Senate, the Chair of the Elections and Apportionment Committee of the Indiana House, and a gubernatorial appointment.
Studies show that, except in few instances, independent redistricting commissions fail to promote more competitive elections as some advocates claim. Instead, the evidence regarding lopsided partisan majorities in many statehouses points to geographical clustering of partisans of one or another party, making it difficult to apportion voters without violating political boundaries. Still, independent commissions may have the effect of instilling greater confidence in the electoral process. In a state like Indiana where all but one Congressional district in 2014 was won by a margin of victory of 20 percent or greater and almost a quarter of General Assembly elections were uncontested, voter confidence may be a significant factor in considering whether or not to adopt an independent commission for of redistricting.
Several legislative study committees investigating changes in the redistricting process have been convened in recent years including one this summer chaired by Senator Brandt Hershman (R-District 7). Despite Indiana’s lack of constitutional authority authorizing an Arizona-like referendum to consider adopting an independent commission, some of the models described above provide alternatives to the current process that the Hershman Committee might want to examine. However, they are under little pressure from Hoosiers residents to do so.