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How to bring fairness, transparency to redistricting

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Every year, some activists and state lawmakers push to establish an independent redistricting commission for Indiana. There are policy papers, rallies and usually a piece of legislation.

The legislation doesn’t go anywhere, though. The most recent one — Senate Bill 283 — is a good example of what typically happens: It gets the standard first reading and then is sent to the Committee on Elections, where it sits untouched for the rest of the session.

The commission push is part of an effort to put a stop to gerrymandering, the process of manipulating state and congressional districts to gain an advantage or put the opposing political party at a disadvantage. Indiana, like many other states, leaves redistricting to state lawmakers.

The redistricting process moved to the next phase Sept. 14, when House Republicans unveiled proposed congressional and Indiana House maps online. The elections committee will meet at 1 p.m. Sept. 15 and 10 a.m. Sept. 16 in the House chamber, where the public can give feedback on the maps.

Related: Gerrymandering possible cause of depressed voter turnout

The details in proposals vary, but the idea of a commission is to take redistricting out of lawmakers’ hands and put people who aren’t directly impacted in charge of the process. Advocates also argue a commission would be more transparent.

One of the leading groups in Indiana for redistricting reform is Common Cause Indiana, which has helped launch or is a part of various campaigns related to redistricting. One group, the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, acts as a model to demonstrate a multi-partisan approach.

TOWN HALL: The Recorder and the Indiana Citizen will host a virtual panel discussion about racial gerrymandering at 6 p.m. Sept. 15. Watch live on the Recorder’s Facebook.

The commission — made up of three Republicans, three Democrats and three people who are neither Republican nor Democrat — held virtual public meetings and sent a report to the Indiana General Assembly based on feedback from the meetings.

Julia Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, said the multi-partisan approach, as opposed to nonpartisan, is important because people who are truly nonpartisan may not be interested enough to make a difference.

“You’ve gotta have some kind of dog in the fight,” she said.

State Rep. Cherrish Pryor, a Democrat who serves on the elections committee, doesn’t sway one way or the other when it comes to multi-partisan or nonpartisan.

“I think the main thing is to take it out of the hands of the legislators,” she said.

Pryor, who is part of the Indiana Black Legislative Caucus, said a major concern for her is making sure minority communities get fair representation in the Statehouse.

If districts are “cracked” — meaning particular voters are split into multiple districts — voting power is diluted. If districts are “packed” — meaning particular voters are concentrated in a single district — voters’ influence is reduced. When race is involved in gerrymandering, it’s called “bleaching.”

Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program, warned that not all commissions are created equal, and just because the word “independent” is in the title doesn’t mean that’s how it actually operates.

“The devil is definitely in the details,” he said.

Rudensky co-authored a guide to redistricting reform, along with model legislation, in 2019. It includes a recommended makeup for a 15-member commission, how commissioners are selected and how to remove them if they neglect their duties or are guilty of misconduct.

The guide also has recommendations for how to be transparent, including not communicating with outsiders attempting to influence the map-drawing process, and says the commission should have at least 10 public meetings outside of regular work hours.

Still, Rudensky said a less-than-ideal commission would be preferable to the secretive, biased process many state legislatures use to draw districts.

“The good isn’t the enemy of the perfect,” he said.

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-762-7853. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

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