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March 9, 2011

One Democrat, one Republican hope to make process equitable

TERRE HAUTE — Former Indiana lawmakers Dave Crooks and Bill Ruppel didn’t have much in common when they served together in the Indiana Statehouse, given that one’s a Democrat and the other Republican.

But now both agree on one thing: The grand political tradition of carving out legislative districts to favor the party in power is no good for democracy.

That’s why Crooks and Ruppel are co-chairs of an independent commission dedicated to serving as a watchdog over a process that’s long been subject to what Ruppel calls “backroom machinations” and what Crooks describes as “politicians choosing their voters.”

That process is legislative redistricting — the redrawing of the political boundary lines every 10 years for congressional and state legislative districts.

In Indiana, it’s a process controlled by the party in power.

The ultimate prize in redistricting can be lucrative: if done in a blatantly partisan fashion, it puts political advantage over the constitutional requirements of fair and equitable representation.

Both Crooks and Ruppel say they’ve seen the inside workings of how congressional and state legislative districts were carved up in the past with politics in mind.

And both say that Democrats and Republicans have been equal-opportunity abusers of the system.

“You can’t help yourself from taking advantage of the system when you’re in charge of it,” said Crooks, a  former Democratic state representative who served from 1996 to 2008.

“Watchdogging” that process this year is the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, a nonpartisan group aimed at monitoring and advocating fairness in the redistricting process.

Chaired by Ruppel and Crooks, the commission has launched a series of public meetings around the state to help citizens get more involved in what can be complicated process to understand.

The timing is critical. With the walkout on Feb. 21 of the Indiana House Democrats, legislative business in the Statehouse has come to a virtual halt.

Republican leaders, whose party controls both the state House and state Senate, have vowed to conduct a fair and open redistricting process this time around.

But whether they can keep that promise remains to be seen: The series of public hearings they promised to conduct around the state, through a joint House-Senate Election Committee, have yet to materialize with less than two months to go in the legislative session.

By its nature, redistricting controlled by political parties is contentious. In 2001, it was the Republicans in the House who staged a walkout to object to the Democrats’ redistricting plan.

Julia Vaughn, who represents Common Cause Indiana on the Citizens Redistricting Commission, contends Indiana lawmakers have given themselves little time to generate true public participation.

“It’s a daunting task to solicit meaningful public input,” Vaughn said.

Behind closed doors, the mapmaking process has already begun.

Using sophisticated software, legislative staff are looking at both historic voting patterns in every district and the 2010 Census numbers that show significant population shifts around the state.

Those shifts could have major impact on how the lines are drawn for the 100 House districts in Indiana, each of which must end up with around 65,000 people.

According to the Indiana Business Research Center, which analyzes Census information for the state (and posts it on the STATS Indiana website, stats.indiana.edu), the Indianapolis metropolitan area boomed over the past decade, accounting for 57 percent of the state’s total growth.

Meanwhile, many of Indiana’s midsized communities — particularly those that formed the state’s industrial backbone — suffered significant population decline.

What that means in practical terms is that the fast-growing suburban communities around Indianapolis —including Hendricks and Boone counties — will likely gain House seats while communities on the decline — such as Lake County in northwest Indiana — will likely lose seats.

By law, the Indiana General Assembly has to approve the new U.S. congressional districts by the end of this session in April.

They could delay approving state House and state Senate districts until next year’s legislative session.

But as Ruppel notes, it would be a logistical challenge: House and Senate candidates for the 2012 primary in May have to file for office in early 2012 — before the new districts’ maps would even be approved.

Ruppel predicted state lawmakers will instead try to rush through the redistricting process this session, with unpredictable results.

“That,” said Ruppel, “is why it’s so important for us to just keep bird-dogging them.”

Maureen Hayden is statehouse bureau chief for CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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