Editorial Roundup: Redistricting is often ignored, yet very important

Published 8:50 pm Friday, February 25, 2022

If there’s a topic more sleep-inducing to the general public than redistricting, it should be bottled and sold to insomniacs.

“Esoteric,” however, does not mean “unimportant.”

In its simplest intent, redistricting is the process of redrawing political jurisdictions every 10 years in response to population shifts revealed during the decennial census. That’s it: Put new lines on a map after people moved around for 10 years. The goal is to ensure each jurisdiction has about the same number of people so they are all about evenly represented. You’ve just “redistricted.”

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In practice, however, redistricting is part of the political playbook, not just a data and cartography challenge. Lawmakers weigh in, courts are usually involved, too, and lots of interests work and spend to ensure the lines get drawn in their interests, creating or solidifying a voting block that will support their candidates.

At its best, the redistricting process results in a map that makes sense. Most of the congressional, state House and Senate and city ward lines make recognizable shapes and they reveal a reasonable effort to acknowledge the interests of those who live inside the lines — suburbs with suburbs, rural with rural and so on.

At its worst, the process can be corrupted to set up impossible-to-breach political strongholds, eliminate problematic incumbent opponents by drawing lines that force them to run against one another (thus ensuring the “problem” is halved), or dilute a natural voting block’s power by dividing it among several districts. There’s even a name for it: gerrymandering.

While lawsuits about recounts happened around the nation and Congress made headlines around its efforts toward voting rights reform, few voters or talking heads are spending much energy or words on redistricting. That’s a mistake. For all of the rhetorical and legal heat around election security and voting rights in 2020 and 2021, redistricting is one of the prime fronts in the battle for political supremacy. It could arguably make a bigger difference than any direct voting reform.

And so parties spend lots of money on it, parsing voter data and then trying to guide the lines on the map to benefit them most. (For more on the topic, research Thomas Hofeller to see how it’s done. He was not the only hired gun and both parties participate, but his techniques have been well-documented.)

Beyond political junkies, however, the process rarely gets noticed, maybe because it happens only once a decade, maybe because most voters are never “drawn out” of their traditional district. But also because the wizards behind the political curtains prefer to be discreet. Unnoticed. Unrecognized.

Nothing to see here.

The good news: Minnesota has a long tradition of pretty clean politics. (Really.) It also has the nation’s highest voter turnout, year after year, and it has a pretty engaged, fairly knowledgeable population that cares about good government. Real gerrymandering shenanigans are rare within our borders, and usually pretty minor.

However, the redrawing of congressional, state and local voting lines all over the country will influence how Minnesotans live in the coming decade because those lines will help determine who gets elected and whether that process was fair or unduly manipulated by who drew the map and why.

And even Minnesota’s decent past performance on redistricting (which carried through on the maps unveiled this week) doesn’t ensure future clean dealing.

It takes an informed electorate, paying attention, to keep our representative form of government intact and functioning legitimately. When the topic is as seemingly dry as redistricting, the attention is even more vital.

Only the terminally naive could be convinced that politics could be divorced from an inherently political process like redistricting. But it shouldn’t take an idealist to believe politics must be held to a standard of fair play. Step one: The refs have to be watching the game.

— St. Cloud Times, Feb. 18

About Editorial Roundup

Editorials from newspapers around the state of Minnesota.

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