Kelly Hawes: Advocates still hope to give voters a choice (copy)

Julia Vaughn hasn’t given up on putting Indiana’s once-a-decade redistricting process in the hands of voters.

“We’re going to keep trying,” she said.

Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, has been among the leading voices in a coalition that aims to create a citizen-led redistricting commission. So far, that idea has found little support from Indiana lawmakers.

In each of the past two years, the Indiana Senate passed a measure establishing guidelines for the redistricting process, but that bill failed even to get a committee hearing in the Indiana House.

Still, Vaughn and her cohorts keep at it.

One thing that could help, she said, is a favorable ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court on cases out of Maryland and North Carolina. The North Carolina case, in particular, shows promise.

“I can’t imagine any more evidence of partisan gerrymandering than we have in that case,” Vaughn said.

She offers no predictions on the outcome.

“I keep hoping for John Roberts to step forward,” she said, referring to the Indiana-born chief justice. “I hope he is going to put the interests of our country ahead of partisan considerations.”

A favorable ruling could be a game changer.

“It would send a clear message to the general assembly that it’s time to take politics out of the process,” Vaughn said.

Such a ruling is long overdue.

The whole purpose of redistricting is to adjust the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts to account for changes in population revealed by the census. The idea is to ensure that all districts have roughly the same number of residents.

Politicians aren’t satisfied with that. Instead, they take advantage of the process to draw districts that favor one party over the other.

As a result, the election in way too many cases is effectively over in the primary. The maps give one party such an advantage that the other party effectively has no chance.

Voters, left with no real choices, begin to think their voices don’t matter. They grow apathetic and tune out the process.

Politicians, with no need ever to reach out to the other party, move further from the center. They focus exclusively on keeping the base happy. Compromise becomes a rarity.

Reform advocates say it’s time to change all of that.

They’ll try again in the next session of the General Assembly to push through reform legislation, and in 2021, when lawmakers set about the task of drawing new maps, reform advocates will keep pushing for transparency.

The last time Indiana went through this process, lawmakers held a number of public hearings, but the timing was off.

“The hearings all happened before they had any actual maps,” Vaughn said. “So the public was given a chance to provide input on exactly what?”

When the finished product finally did come out, the hearings were long over, and the public had less than three weeks to examine the new maps before they were passed into law and signed by the governor.

“We’ll be pushing for more time,” Vaughn said. “There’s no need to rush.”

The coalition will be advocating transparency and a chance for real public input.

“We want to get citizens involved,” Vaughn said.

The last time around, lawmakers gave members of the public a chance to draw their own maps, but the opportunities were limited. Reform advocates hope to expand the process, making it far easier to participate.

“We might even set up our own redistricting commission,” Vaughn said.

The ultimate goal is to make citizens part of the process. With or without the help of Indiana lawmakers.

Kelly Hawes is a columnist for for CNHI newspapers in Indiana. Send comments to [email protected].