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March 2, 2014

KELLY HAWES: It’s time to take politics out of redistricting

INDIANAPOLIS — A bill to form a bipartisan redistricting commission apparently died in the Indiana Senate last week.

House Bill 1032 passed the Indiana House on Jan. 21 by a vote of 77-20. The measure had the support of House Speaker Brian Bosma and even some Democrats. Minority Leader Tim Lanane was among the bill’s sponsors in the Senate.

But it was in the Senate where the measure bogged down. It was assigned to the Senate Elections Committee, where it failed to get a hearing ahead of Thursday’s deadline. Now, barring some move to resurrect the measure in conference committee, the issue is likely dead for the current session.

That’s unfortunate.

Indiana can’t do it alone, but if such an approach were to win support across the country, it would go a long way toward fixing this nation’s broken legislative process.

Most of us are fed up with the dysfunction of Congress. We are disappointed that our representatives and senators seem incapable of dealing with the many issues facing our country.

Many believe the problem is that too few lawmakers are willing to compromise. They have their own vision of how things ought to be done, and they are unwilling to concede any point to the other side.

This is particularly true in the U.S. House of Representatives, where way too many members come from so-called safe districts, districts where one party so outnumbers the other that the election is effectively over after the primary.

This works against an old adage in politics, which is that candidates tend to move toward the base in the primary and then move back toward the center in the general election. That means that in the spring Republicans try to convince us how conservative they are while Democrats are trying to convince us how liberal they are. In this scenario, the two prevailing candidates begin to moderate their positions in the summer and fall as they try to lure all those voters in the center.

Now, in far too many districts, that move toward the center never comes. Republicans stick to the right, Democrats stick to the left and that vast number of voters in the middle of the road see their voices having less and less impact.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there should be no safe Republican or Democratic districts. We all understand that there are parts of Indiana and any other state where it would be next to impossible to draw a district where both parties had an equal chance. Democrats will always have trouble winning in the suburbs of Indianapolis, and Republicans will always have an uphill battle in Lake County.

These days, though, those safe districts are growing more and more common, and middle ground is getting harder and harder to find.

Drawing legislative and congressional districts has always been a political process. One of the reasons both parties fight so hard to win a legislative majority at the beginning of each decade is to have control of where the lines get drawn. The ability to draw districts that favor your side has always been one of the spoils of the political wars.

The fact is, though, that drawing maps for political advantage isn’t good for the democratic process. It’s a recipe for what we have now in Washington. It’s a recipe for gridlock.

And now is the time to fix it. Seven years before Indiana lawmakers embark on the next redistricting effort, when no one knows who will be in control of the Indiana General Assembly, this is the time to change the process.

Bosma deserves credit for getting behind this concept. My hope is that the idea will continue to pick up steam. It might not happen this year, but maybe it’ll happen soon.

Let’s hope so.

Kelly Hawes is a veteran journalist with CNHI’s Indiana newspapers. He can be reached at kelly.hawes@indianamediagroup.com.

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