Court took partisan edge off mapping Minnesota districts

Published 11:02 am Thursday, March 27, 2014

ST. PAUL — The redistricting power grabs seen nationally and in many states haven’t happened in Minnesota, but it’s not for a lack of trying.

Divided government has kept the state’s two largest parties from having enough muscle to push through new electoral maps that could give them an advantage. And that effectively meant any political boundary changes after the once-a-decade census was done by the courts.

In the most recent round, in 2010, Democrat Mark Dayton’s slender 9,000-vote victory in the governor’s race gave his party a powerful blocker to Republicans who had just captured both legislative chambers.

Dayton sounded an early warning that he would veto any maps that didn’t have at least some bipartisan support.

Republicans passed their preferred maps for the state’s eight congressional districts and 201 legislative districts on party-line votes anyway. During a months-long process, Democrats frequently criticized the maps as blatantly partisan.

Dayton swiftly fulfilled his veto promise. A lawsuit drew the whole process into court — just as it was during divided state government 10 years earlier.

A special court appointed by chief of the state Supreme Court took over, coming out with its maps in 2012. The resulting congressional map left the state with two districts where Democrats have a clear advantage, two where Republicans are naturally favored and four that could tilt based on the times and candidates.

The only notable effect of that map was in putting GOP Rep. Michele Bachmann in the same district with six-term Democratic Rep. Betty McCollum. Bachmann simply shifted slightly to the redrawn district next door and won another term easily.

The redistricting exercise matters because how maps are drawn can give one party a distinct advantage for a decade. That affects which party holds legislative majorities and sets the policy agenda.

Some people have put forward ideas for redesigning the process to ensure that neither party controls the outcome. Former Vice President Walter Mondale and a handful of former top politicians suggested in 2011 that retired judges make the maps. The idea went nowhere in the GOP-led Legislature.