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Few political issues have been as intractable in the last half-century as redistricting, according to University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

Redistricting has been a mess in each of the past four decades

Few political issues have been as intractable in the last half-century as redistricting, according to University of Minnesota political science professor Larry Jacobs.

“If you go back across the last four cycles, all of them have broken down. The current process does not work. The courts intervene repeatedly. I think the bigger point here is that the Legislature has a difficult time handling this,” Jacobs said.

Census officials earlier this year collected the decennial population count. Soon lawmakers will set out to do what they haven’t been able to since the 1960s: Draw the districts in which their constituents reside.

Redistricting has been fraught in the last four attempts because each time the Legislature and the governor have been divided along political lines. Another issue has been that politicians were slow to update the political map to reflect the changing nature of Minnesota since World War I, in which the rural areas have lost population and suburbs have emerged as a political force.


The map of Minnesota’s eight congressional districts looked much different in the early 70s than it does today. Peter Wattson, a Senate counsel and national expert on redistricting, said in an interview that the districts back then reflected the so-called pie-wedge in which districts started in rural areas and encroached on the Twin Cities metropolitan area.

The 6th Congressional District, for example, stretched from Luverne in southwestern Minnesota up to suburban Fridley. The 2nd District ran from Albert Lea all the way north to the Minnesota River in Dakota County. The 1st District covered “southeast” Minnesota, from Winona to the edge of St. Paul. And the 8th District sprawled from International Falls through Anoka County. The Minneapolis and St. Paul districts were packed in and surrounded by rural influence.

In 1971, DFL Gov. Wendell Anderson and the Republican-controlled Legislature passed the pie-wedge plan. In the redistricting plan for state legislative districts, a tussle over a proposal to reduce the size of the Legislature left the 1972 election process in doubt as the issue was argued in the courts.

As retold by former Star Tribune political reporter Betty Wilson in her 2005 biography of the late Gov. Rudy Perpich, the then-lieutenant governor crafted a plan to reduce the size of the Legislature down to 33 senators (instead of 67) and 99 House members (instead of 135). Perpich’s plan drew bipartisan opposition in the Legislature from Senate Minority Leader Nick Coleman and Majority Leader Stanley Holmquist. A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit upheld the Legislature-reduction plan. But the U.S. Supreme Court then threw out the reduction proposal.


In the Minnesota Massacre election of 1978, Republican Al Quie toppled Perpich and House Republicans rose to an evenly divided 67-67 tie with DFLers. When the Legislature convened in the midst of a terrible recession in January 1981, DFLers had opened up a 70-64 majority. The House and the DFL Senate stood against Quie in another example of a divided government stymieing lawmakers’ efforts to draw new districts.

Federal courts drew the congressional plan in 1982. In 1983, lawmakers enacted the court plan with adjustments. The structure of the districts, which gave large amounts of power to rural legislators, was at the center of the redistricting controversy.

“In the 1980s, the issue was the pie wedge. Should there be the pie wedge or should they find a way to provide not three but four districts (in the metropolitan area),” Wattson said.

The federal court finally approved a map that included four districts for the metro area.


In 1991, Republican Gov. Arne Carlson faced a DFL-controlled Legislature and redistricting was again divisive among lawmakers and subjected to extensive litigation.

Minnesota constitutional history scholar Mary Jane Morrison notes in her book, “The Minnesota State Constitution: A Reference Guide,” that the “nadir of Minnesota reapportionment problems came after the 1990 census.”

Republicans began pushing for combining Minneapolis and St. Paul into a single congressional district. Another point of contention, Wattson said, was a proposal to create a northern Minnesota district stretching from the Arrowhead to the Red River.

The path to the courts was unusual even by the standards of redistricting politics.

Carlson vetoed the redistricting bill. But he hadn’t returned the vetoed bill to its house of origin when the clock struck midnight on the last night of session. The bill then became law without Carlson’s signature. Objections, however, were already in the courts.

“It was a fluke and the map was upheld,” said state Sen. Ann Rest, DFL-New Hope, who was first elected in 1984 and is a point person on elections policy.

In January 1991 Democrats had already challenged the redistricting plan in state court. In March, Republicans filed suit in federal court. A federal court decided on a redistricting plan in February 1992, which was the blueprint that was used in the next election.

After the election, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Growe v. Emison that the federal court shouldn’t have intervened to the point of doing redistricting for the state. The state, in other words, should have drawn the districts without federal interference. Conservative Justice Antonin Scalia was joined by the liberal wing of the high court in writing a unanimous opinion, which was itself a rare example of judicial decisiveness on the issue, Wattson said.

“How many times do you get a unanimous decision from the Supreme Court on a redistricting issue? It’s not very often,” Wattson said.

The new district boundaries went into effect in 1994.


In the last round of redistricting, legislators in the Republican-controlled House and the DFL-controlled Senate weren’t able to agree on a map with third-party Gov. Jesse Ventura.

Jacobs, who has studied redistricting extensively as the director of the Humphrey Institute’s Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, said the expectation that redistricting would ultimately get tossed into the courts colored legislative leaders’ outlooks.

“A very large part of it was just the incumbents gooing things up and the defeatism and fatalism of the leadership in believing the courts would step in. Their basic reaction was, ‘Look, this is going to the courts anyway, why not let it go there and not have to have the bloodletting,'” Jacobs said.

The issue of combining Minneapolis and St. Paul into one congressional district was again a key point of disagreement between Republicans and DFLers in redistricting.

“One of the things the Republicans wanted in the congressional districts was a congressional district that brought together both Minneapolis and St. Paul. And that was not acceptable for the Democrats to have two incumbents running against one another from the same party,” Rest said.

Ultimately the courts intervened and redrew the districts in time for the 2002 election cycle.

Rest said the redistricting debate about the Twin Cities urban core is still a topic for debate among legislators.

“That continues to be an issue, particularly if we lose a congressional seat. Where do we draw seven districts as opposed to eight?” Rest said.

Population projections have shown Minnesota could potentially lose a congressional seat in the next reapportionment. But demographers have said the counts are too close to call at the moment.

Looking forward, Jacobs said state lawmakers will move toward drawing the districts for the 2012 election in an environment where they will be under tremendous strain to deal with the projected $5.8 billion deficit for the 2012-2013 biennium.

Jacobs, who advocates for a new style of redistricting in which maps are drawn for lawmakers by retired, less politically attached judges, said another redistricting collision is likely to happen again.

“In this moment where the budget is in a crisis situation this is a very bad thing,” Jacobs said.

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