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Redistricting Woes Plague State Legislatures

Ed Andrieski/Associated Press
In Colorado, Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper (above) unsuccessfully tried to cut a redistricting deal with Senate President Brandon Shaffer and Speaker Frank McNulty.

The halls of Capitol Hill aren’t the only political intersection clogged by gridlock.

In divided state capitals across the country, legislatures struggle to agree on Congressional redistricting, leaving the makeup of many competitive House seats up in the air.

Mapmaking responsibilities were already bucked to state courts in Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada. But the Congressional redistricting process is less than halfway complete, and more maps could be headed to court in the upcoming months as a result of gridlock between legislatures and governors.

“You’re going to see impasse where you have divided government,” Democratic redistricting attorney Jeff Wice told Roll Call. “And that’s why you’ve seen Minnesota, Colorado, Nevada, end up in court.”

A decade ago, Wice recalled, courts took over mapmaking in nine states because of legislative gridlock: Colorado, Maine, Minnesota, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas. It’s too early to tell whether courts will intervene as often in the 2012 round of redistricting. 

“Other states have just not yet gotten to the point of impasse,” Wice said. “When you look around at other states, there aren’t that many opportunities for impasse because of divided government.”

But redistricting experts in both parties keep tabs on select states with divided government when it comes to the process of revising maps.

Chris Jankowski, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, has his eye on Virginia, which likely won’t take up the mapmaking process again until after state legislative elections in November.

“We’re still waiting to hear from Virginia. That’s still unresolved,” Jankowski said. “I think Florida is going to be interesting, and New York will be pretty important. Those aren’t the only three, but those are at the top.”

In the meantime, state courts will take a stab at the first three maps to wind up in their respective hands. Here’s our preview of what to expect from the legal process in Colorado, Minnesota and Nevada.

Colorado

The new Colorado Congressional map will be drawn by the courts for the fourth time in four decades after the split Legislature once again was unable to agree on a map.

The GOP-controlled House and Democratic-controlled Senate drew their own maps, but as the session ended in mid-May, neither side would budge. House Republicans approved their plan, while Senate Democrats never called a vote on theirs.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), Senate President Brandon Shaffer (D) and Speaker Frank McNulty (R) attempted to negotiate a plan, but talks broke down shortly before the session ended in early May. McNulty and Shaffer blamed the impasse on each other.

State Sen. Gail Schwartz (D), a member of the redistricting committee, told Roll Call recently that the split Legislature and slim majorities in each chamber — and an unwillingness to just get something done — “was probably the greatest contributor to that gridlock.”

On May 11, both parties filed lawsuits in Denver District Court on behalf of seven individuals, one from each district. The court had both parties submit new maps Aug. 22.

Ten years ago, the redistricting trial lasted seven days and ended with a judicially imposed settlement on a Republican map that was amended by Democrats, according to Mark Grueskin, the attorney representing Democrats. This time, a weeklong trial is scheduled to begin
Oct. 11, and both parties are eagerly waiting to see what process the judge uses to decide on a new map.

Minnesota

Legislative gridlock forced the courts to take over the Gopher State’s Congressional redraw for the second decade in a row. The fate of Minnesota’s eight House districts, including at least three competitive seats, is at stake.

In May, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature passed a map that would protect current incumbents, especially freshman Rep. Chip Cravaack (R). Gov. Mark Dayton (D) vetoed that map promptly, and as a result, courts are now in charge of the line-drawing process.

The state Supreme Court picked five judges for a panel to redraw the Congressional map. The judges’ backgrounds are all over the map, with two appointed by former Gov. Jesse Ventura (I), one by former Gov. Arne Carlson (R), one by former Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) and one by former Gov. Rudy Perpich (D).

It’s nearly impossible to infer which way the panel will sway, given its makeup, said Peter Knapp, a Minnesota courts expert at William Mitchell College of the Law.

“As a group, I’m not sure they’ve worked together before, so there’s not really precedent to guide us,” Knapp said. “I would say the judges on that panel all have a reputation for being very even-handed, fair-minded.”

Both parties hired attorneys for the process. Minnesota Republican Party Chairman Tony Sutton said his party retained lawyers for the redistricting case via a third-party group, Minnesotans for a Fair Redistricting.

“The court has its process, and we will present our arguments during that process,” Sutton said. “I assume the court will come up with a fair plan that accurately represents the population changes in Minnesota.”

But at least the courts have time on their side. Minnesota law mandates the maps must be finished by late February — one of the latest redistricting deadlines in the country.

Nevada

In Nevada, which was handed a fourth district through reapportionment, the Democratic-controlled Legislature passed
two Congressional redistricting plans, but Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval vetoed both.

The onus of drawing Congressional and state legislative maps is now in the hands of three “special masters” appointed by the court. They won’t begin drawing the maps, however, until both parties present arguments at a Sept. 21 court hearing on five legal issues, the most pressing of which is whether Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requires the creation of a majority-minority district.

Sandoval, who is Hispanic, vetoed the first map May 14, stating in a letter to the state Senate that the plan did not contain a district with a Hispanic majority and was drawn with politics in mind.

“At its core, this bill creates districts that were drawn exclusively for political gain. This plan ensures partisan opportunity rather than the fair representation of all Nevadans,” he wrote.

A few days later, Democrats passed a new map that gave the party an even greater advantage, pushing the Democratic voter registration edge in GOP Rep. Joe Heck’s district to 15 points. The map was approved on a party-line vote, with all 37 Democrats in the House and Senate supporting it and all 26 Republicans opposing.

Sandoval swiftly vetoed the second map May 31 for the same reasons as the first. He cited its “failure to provide for the fair representation of the people of the state of Nevada and comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.”

Assemblyman Tick Segerblom (D), chairman of his chamber’s redistricting committee, told Roll Call recently that the Democratic maps spread Hispanic voters in multiple districts where they could influence elections in more than one district. “We were very proud of what we did, but the governor’s veto message said we didn’t protect Hispanics,” Segerblom said. “We feel they were basically trying to pack the Hispanics [into one district].”

The Legislature adjourned in early June without agreeing to a third map, and Sandoval declined to call a special session. Both parties had already filed lawsuits in anticipation of Sandoval’s veto, sending the process to the courts.

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