Lawmakers in Congress and the Indiana General Assembly insist it’s voters who choose their representatives.

But Hoosiers suspect gerrymandering, the redrawing of electoral maps to favor one political party over another, allows the political parties in power to choose who wins.

Even though the redrawing of Indiana’s congressional and statehouse districts won’t take place until 2021, redistricting already is a controversial issue.

Nearly 100 people attended a nonpartisan discussion Monday night on redistricting sponsored by the 238-member Bartholomew County Indivisible group at the Columbus Learning Center.

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State Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, who chairs the Indiana Senate’s Election Committee, joined Common Cause of Indiana Director Julia Vaughn and redistricting advocate Debbie Asberry of the Indiana League of Women Voters to discuss gerrymandering and whether Indiana needs to redistrict.

Members of the panel expressed their concerns on redistricting and gerrymandering before answering audience questions, with community leader Sherry Stark serving as moderator.

Critics say the 2011 drawing of GOP-friendly maps after the last census helped Republicans build massive General Assembly super-majorities in both legislative chambers.

But despite their ideological differences, the panelists said both major parties have been guilty of gerrymandering in the past.

Democrats held Indiana House majorities for most of a 20-year period after they had control of drawing up districts following the 1990 and 2000 censuses.

But Republicans had control of both the General Assembly and the redistricting process after the 2010 census. Today, 69 of 100 state representatives are Republicans, while 41 of the 50 state senators are members of the GOP.

That’s why Vaughn and Asberry said they favor establishing a nine-member, bipartisan redistricting commission.

No matter which party does it, gerrymandering reduces competitive races, which results in lower voter turnout, Vaughn and Asberry said.

Because of the way some redistricting lines are drawn, it can also divide communities of color, culture and ethnicity.

In January, the concept of an independent commission was included in House Bill 1014. Six weeks later, a hearing on the proposal was held by the Elections and Apportionment Committee, with more than 300 people attending.

Many who spoke said having an independent panel draw election maps would lead to representation that would be more fair, and to also make races more competitive.

Despite the overwhelming support for reform voiced during 90 minutes of testimony, State Rep. Milo Smith, R-Columbus, refused to allow a vote on the proposal in the Elections and Apportionment Committee he chairs.

State Rep. Jim Lucas, R-Seymour, a member of Smith’s panel, said an independent commission might violate the Indiana Constitution, which gives state lawmakers sole oversight for drawing both congressional and state legislative district lines.

However, Vaughn cited two Indiana Supreme Court justices who already have said it’s not unconstitutional, just as long as lawmakers have the final authority.

“The players should not be the umpires,” Asberry said.

Although a summer study committee met to discuss redistricting, Walker described the results as lightweight, saying no proposals emerged from the group.

As a result, the prospects of establishing an independent redistricting commission in 2018 are slim, Walker said.

An alternative supported by Walker calls for two census data analysts — a Republican and Democrat — to score any proposed changes on whether they would be positive, negative or neutral in reflecting both major parties.

But the senator said he’s not sensing much support for that concept, either.

Although odd-shaped districts have been a sign of gerrymandering in the past, that’s no longer the case, Vaughn said.

Today, sophisticated computer software that places different layers of voter data on a map can successfully gerrymander districts without leaving tell-tale odd shapes, she said.

But there is a standard for measuring partisan gerrymandering called the efficiency gap, which is at the heart of a Wisconsin gerrymandering case now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

If the court upholds a lower ruling that Wisconsin Republicans wrongly maximized GOP advantages in redrawing their districts, Walker expects a challenge will be made to Indiana’s maps.

The court’s decision in the Wisconsin case Gill v. Whitford is expected to be announced late this winter.

Whatever Indiana decides to do, all three panelists would like for plans to be finalized next year.

That’s because all three expect any change will be challenged in court, and they want all issues resolved before redistricting is considered four years from now.

About redistricting

Redistricting is the process by which new congressional and state legislative district boundaries are drawn.

Each of Indiana’s nine U.S. Representatives and 150 state legislators are elected from political divisions called districts. U.S. Senators are not elected by districts, but by the states at large.

District lines are redrawn every 10 years following completion of the census. The federal government stipulates that districts must have nearly equal populations and must not discriminate on the basis of race or ethnicity.

Source: Brennan Center for Justice

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.