Redistricting, it seems, is in Peter Wattson’s blood.
As he has been many times over the years, he is in the thick of it yet again—this time, for the first time, as a plaintiff. Wattson, the former state Senate counsel, is one of six people who filed suit last month against Secretary of State Steve Simon and Carver County Elections Manager Kendra Olson.
They hope their litigation leads the courts to declare that current congressional and legislative boundaries are outdated and must be redrawn well before the 2022 elections.
If lawmakers don’t get that done before Feb. 15, 2022, the Carver County lawsuit asks that “this Court will consider evidence, determine and order valid plans for new Minnesota congressional and legislative districts.”
To make things easier for the bench, Wattson has helpfully supplied his own redrawn maps, which he calls the “least-change” option for redistricting. More on that later.
Redistricting is a job the Legislature is constitutionally required to do. But there is a time-honored tradition of Minnesota lawmakers not doing it. Equally time-honored—at least since 1972—is the court’s role in stepping in to make redistricting happen.
In effect, Wattson said in a recent interview, he filed suit with retired Ramsey County elections supervisor Joe Mansky and several others just in case lawmakers fail to act. Which is no remote possibility, he said.
“What reason would we have to think of the Legislature wouldn’t get its job done on time?” Wattson said. “Oh, only 140 years of history.”
They’re plainly not doing much at the moment. The House Redistricting Committee, led by Rep. Mary Murphy, DFL-Duluth, hasn’t met once since the start of 2021 session and no meetings are scheduled.
Its Senate counterpart, chaired by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, has met twice, once to review the history of redistricting and once to review the redistricting process. Its last hearing was on Jan. 22, and no more are on the calendar.
Since the 1970s, remapping of Minnesota’s legislative and congressional districts has never been accomplished without court involvement. As Senate counsel, Wattson personally was involved in state redistricting matters in 1972, 1982, 1992 and 2002. (In 2011, he switched jobs and became Gov. Mark Dayton’s general counsel.)
“Part of my message is that is just same old, same old,” Wattson said. “This is the sixth decade in a row that we’ve had a citizen in a voter lawsuit saying, you’ve got to do something. And I assume that the court will do it.”
In his civil complaint, which has not yet received the defendants’ reply, Wattson is described as a “retired, itinerant, redistricting aficionado.” Actually, you could almost call redistricting a family inheritance.
A footnote to his Feb. 19 complaint mentions that his father, Marshman S. Wattson, a law professor and former executive secretary to the ACLU’s Minnesota branch, participated as an amicus in Magraw v. Donovan, a pivotal 1958 Minnesota U.S. District Court case that dealt with legislative district malapportionment.
You might not be too impressed with that, unless you read to the end of the footnote. There it says that Magraw v. Donovan was the first successful federal malapportionment suit and “an inspiration for Baker v. Carr.”
Baker v. Carr, the landmark 1962 U.S. Supreme Court decision, is a big deal. Baker was the first case in which legislative apportionment was found to be justiciable by the nation’s highest court. Justice William J. Brennan, writing for a 6-3 majority, concluded that equal protection issues raised in the suit merited judicial review and that the Supreme Court had jurisdiction.
Wattson says he has dim personal memories about the 1958 Minnesota redistricting case that helped stir those waters. He remembers that when he was 13, his father hosted chats with Dan Magraw, the plaintiff in that Minnesota case, and Frank Farrell, Magraw’s lawyer. Years later, he gleaned from a newspaper account that the men were discussing the litigation.
Magraw and Ferrell filed the federal suit asking that the state’s legislative districts be declared invalid and that the Secretary of State and county auditors be enjoined from operating election machinery during future elections under the then-current law (which, incidentally, is exactly what Wattson now demands in Wattson, et al., v. Simon).
Magraw and Ferrell, with help from Wattson’s father, convinced U.S. District Judge Edward Devitt — and later a three-judge federal court — that it was wrong for the population of the state’s largest House district to be 14.7 times bigger than the smallest, or for the largest Senate district to be nine times bigger than the smallest.
While his 13-year-old self didn’t really understand what his dad was up to at the time, Wattson would eventually figure it out. While researching old court cases to prepare a Senate Redistricting Committee presentation in 2001, Marshman’s name popped up in his research as a Magraw amicus.
“What?” he recalls exclaiming. “That’s my dad! I didn’t know that my tremendous interest in redistricting, which had manifested itself over the previous three decades, was genetic. But I don’t know how much is nature and how much is nurture.”
Now, as to Wattson’s ideas for redistricting.
He has drawn up two sets of maps. One covers what would happen if the state loses a congressional seat to slowed population growth. The other involves an eight-seat plan.
Minnesota is right on the fence between keeping all eight congressional seats and losing one. That answer won’t be known until the U.S. Census Bureau releases state population data in April.
If it does lose a seat, Wattson’s solution is to redraw boundaries so that each remaining district gains roughly 100,000 in population. That plan is included as an appendix to his civil complaint.
His proposed map eliminates the 8th Congressional District, gives U.S. Rep. Pete Stauber, R-Hermantown, all of Northern Minnesota in a newly redrawn 7th Congressional District, and stretches the 1st Congressional District northward along the state’s western border until it meets the new 7th.
Because it attempts not to divide counties, Wattson’s seven-district plan throws freshman U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach, R-Paynesville, into the newly redrawn 6th District with U.S. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-Delano. (That wasn’t intentional, he says; Fischbach hadn’t even filed for office when he drew the map.)
His plan also shifts boundaries around in other districts. U.S. Rep. Angie Craig, DFL-Eagan, loses a bit of Washington County, but adds Newport. U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar, DFL-Minneapolis, gains Bloomington and Eden Prairie, taking territory from U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, DFL-Deephaven. Phillips, in turn, absorbs almost all portions of Carver County not currently in his district.
Wattson’s other congressional map, which has been sent to legislators but was not included in his civil complaint, assumes no change in the number of congressional districts. But it still must shift boundaries around to account for significant population losses in some districts and gains in others.
That map avoids splitting cities and maintains 93% of the core geography of the state’s current congressional districts, Wattson said.
But no matter what else happens, redistricting of state House and Senate seats inevitably means that some legislators will be thrown into districts already occupied by incumbents, and other districts will be left with open seats.
Wattson’s legislative redistricting plan, based on the state’s 2018 population, pairs 34 House members, creating 17 open House seats. That’s a little worse than the court-approved redistricting plan of 2012, which paired 30 House members. But it’s equal to the 34 House members who were paired in 2002. “That gets a little ugly,” he admitted.
However, on the senatorial front, Wattson’s plan creates much less chaos than previous court-approved plans. It pairs six senators, creating three open seats. While that might make the senators involved unhappy, it’s a lot less disruptive than the approved redistricting plans of 2002 (18 paired senators) and 2012 (16 paired senators), Wattson says.
He urged lawmakers to examine and consider adopting his plan before the matter gets moving too far through the courts. It is, after all, the Legislature’s job.
“Fellas, are you gonna do better than that?” Wattson said. “You’d better take a very serious look at my plan, because you’re not likely to get as favorable a plan for incumbents from the court.”
In the last three redistricting cycles, remapping has been resolved by state Supreme Court-appointed panels. Anticipating another replay, Wattson, Mansky and the other plaintiffs have already petitioned the Supreme Court, asking it to appoint a special redistricting panel to oversee the next round as well.
As to what might happen if the matter gets again thrown back into judicial hands, Wattson predicts the courts ultimately will approve maps that resemble his.
“Because to be quite different, it could not be a least-change plan, right?” he said. “If they can do a plan that has less of a change than this, more power to them.”
Editor’s note: The article has been edited to include a three-judge federal court’s involvement in Magraw v. Donovan.