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Bill aims to take politics out of redistricting

Redistricting changed Kent Eken’s political career — in a good way, as it turned out — and now Eken wants to change redistricting.

After a decade in the House, beginning with his election in 2002, Eken found his western district had been gutted during the 2012 redistricting process. When, at last, a special judicial panel released the new legislative maps, Eken found that much of his district had been reassigned, and he had been paired with Rep. Paul Marquart, DFL-Dilworth.

Marquart had seniority, had represented much more of the new district and, besides, didn’t want to leave the House, so Eken instead ran for a new Senate seat. Eken, DFL-Twin Valley, had represented just 9 percent of that Senate district before. The rest was new territory.

“My district was kind of annihilated in redistricting,” said Eken, who added that he still thought the process was fair. “I happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Eken won the seat anyway, and has already distinguished himself as an advocate for addressing legislators’ conflicts-of-interest: In 2013, he carried the constitutional amendment that would create a separate commission to set salary rates for lawmakers.

Now, Eken wants to do essentially the same thing on redistricting, widely acknowledged as a once-a-decade contest in partisan cartography that will, almost inevitably, be adjudicated in the courts. Indeed, the last five redistricting efforts in Minnesota have been resolved in one or more court cases, and judges have generally wound up simply redrawing the maps themselves.

In light of that reality, Eken has introduced a bill to create a special redistricting commission made up of retired — and theoretically nonpartisan — judges to handle the redrawing task from start to finish.

“It usually ends up with a panel of judges deciding anyway,” Eken said. “But there’s a lot of wasted time and effort before that.”

Under the language in the bill, the leaders of each of the four legislative caucuses would appoint one judge to the commission, and the appointees would then vote to select the commission’s fifth member. After a round of public hearings across the state, the judges would set to work, eventually submitting their maps for approval to the Legislature. Lawmakers could then reject the first plan, and a second, but would have to adopt the commission’s third offering, though the Legislature could opt to modify the map before ratifying it.

Each side accused the other of trying to tilt things in their favor in 2011, most notably on the congressional level, where legislative Republicans produced a dramatically redesigned map. Among other changes, that proposal would have taken the 8th Congressional District, long the Iron Range’s representative in Washington, D.C., and stretched it across the northern portion of the state. That move would have been “disastrous,” said 8th CD DFL Chairman Don Bye, for both logical and logistical reasons. The northwest and northeast corners of the state generally have little in common economically, or politically, he observed. And from a practical standpoint, there are few highways that link population centers across that vast region, meaning candidates or members of Congress would have been hard-pressed to navigate the new district.

“It would’ve been impossible to represent that district adequately,” Bye said. “Luckily it turned out all right, and the boundaries weren’t changed drastically.”

Bye said he had not seen or heard of Eken’s bill, but said he would support any genuine effort to cut down on political gamesmanship.

“If you can take the partisan element out of it, that would be for the betterment of everyone,” Bye said.

More specific, and decidedly less supportive, was Republican Party of Minnesota Chairman Keith Downey, who expressed doubts about Eken’s bill after reading through it.

“I would say the proposal is, maybe, unworkable at best,” Downey said. “The assumption is that somehow you will remove politics from redistricting, but instead, you’ve just pushed the politics to a different body of unelected people.”

Downey, who was in the House during the most recent redistricting, said he favors the current method. He thought Republicans had done a “pretty good job” at setting a fair plan, but thinks Democrats were always bent on rejecting that map and deferring the matter to the courts.

Downey observed that one weakness in the bill is that the commission’s work would still wind up in front of the Legislature, where partisan interests might still hold sway.

Eken’s bill is due to debut during a Tuesday afternoon hearing before the Senate Elections Subcommittee, where the Secretary of State’s Office will testify in support of the proposal. Secretary of State Steve Simon is backing the bill, Eken said, and his office had helped coordinate the effort to land a House author. Eken’s co-authors in the Senate include a number of committee chairs, and Sen. Katie Sieben, DFL-Newport, chair of the elections panel, was co-author on a virtually identical bill in 2012; that legislation, which landed at nearly the same moment as the judicial panel’s redistricting maps, was never heard in committee.

The House companion will be carried by Rep. Jennifer Schultz, DFL-Duluth, according to Eken, who had only just learned of Schultz’s involvement on Thursday. There are perhaps more likely agents of change, especially on a contentious issue, than a freshman member from the minority caucus. But Schultz may yet get her day in committee, as Rep. Tim Sanders, R-Blaine, also has an interest in discussing the current practice of redistricting.

Like Eken, Sanders, chair of the House Government Operations and Elections Policy Committee, said this session or the next might be the right time, if not the only time, to change the system. While the last round of reapportionment is still fresh in the memory, the next census is still years in the future and neither side can presume to control the Legislature when the next maps are due.

“Nobody knows what 2020 is going to look like right now,” Sanders said. “We’re far enough away, there isn’t that ability to predict who will be in the majority.”

Eken hopes that uncertainty will play in his favor, and intends to argue that only incidental timing have prevented even more unfair districts in years past. If all three branches of government belong to one party at the time of the next redistricting, he warned, there would be no counterbalance to prevent that party from carving up the state to its own advantage.

“I really think the courts are the best ones to weigh those issues,” he said. “In the Legislature, it really comes down to being more about incumbency protection for whoever’s in control at that time.”

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