Minnesota voters already have a lot to think about in next year’s election cycle, like picking a president, U.S. House, a Senate seat and the entire state Legislature. Weeks after a Supreme Court ruling, they can now add redistricting to the list.
In late June, the nation’s high court ruled 5-4 that federal courts were powerless to hear claims of partisan gerrymandering — the redrawing of political voting districts to favor the party in power in a certain state — potentially opening the door for more attempts at reshaping battle lines.
That’s the exact scenario Minnesota could face in 2020 when control of the Legislature — Democractic Gov. Tim Walz’s term doesn’t end until after the 2022 cycle — means some level of control to redistricting following the 2020 census.
While gerrymandering analysts put Minnesota in a position to unbalance the maps, they also caution that the practice is widely unpopular among voters, increasingly so for Democratic ones.
Samuel Wang, a neuroscientist and the director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, says about 70 percent of Americans want gerrymandering kept in check. The Princeton project, which he founded, investigates federalist approaches to redistricting reform through courts, voter initiatives, laws and elections through the actions of individual states.
“If Minnesota gets single-party government, Democrats would be positioned to commit a gerrymander,” Wang wrote in an email this week. “The maps there are fairly balanced...now. Even if legislators favored such a move, Democratic voters have shown hostility to such shenanigans. Might be an outcry.”
The Princeton Project ran two measurements on Minnesota during the 2018 election. One measured the winning margins of both parties and found Republicans won districts with 54.8 percent of the vote average. Democrats won with an average of 61.6 percent, but the margin of victory difference did not suggest gerrymandered districts.
Similarly, by winning five of eight congressional districts with 55.4 percent of the statewide vote, the project’s simulator suggested Democrats would 4.7 seats. The -0.3 difference in actual versus expected also provided no evidence of gerrymandering.
Minnesota statute requires districts be compact, contiguous, preserve political subdivisions and preserve communities of interest. Law also prevents districts being drawn to favor or disfavor an incumbent candidate of a district. The laws are in addition to federal requirements of one person, one vote and the Voting Rights Act.
On their basis, the regulations are designed to prevent gerrymandering of districts for a certain party, which DFL leadership believes the state has historically followed after the census counts.
“Minnesota consistently has one of the highest rates of voter turnout in the nation, thanks in large part to the fair and competitive way our districts have historically been drawn,” said DFL Chairman Ken Martin, in a statement. “ As we move forward, the Minnesota DFL Party is committed to electoral reforms that expand access to our democracy and make it easier, not harder, for people to participate.”
Republican State Rep. Sandy Layman of Cohasset, who served on the House Government Operations Committee this session, said gerrymandering attempts haven’t been a past issue in Minnesota. She points to a number of competitive districts and a pendulum effect that has consistently swung control of the Legislature.
There’s also the courts. Following the 2010 census, legislative efforts to redraw the maps under two Republican-controlled chambers were vetoed by former Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton. The Minnesota Supreme Court ultimately compiled a redistricting committee to decide the shape of voting districts.
During an interview, Layman said the courts play a factor in the state’s fairly-drawn maps, but it should be a goal of the Legislature and Walz to reach an agreement in 2021. If the state holds the status quo as the only divided-power Legislature in the nation, the odds of an agreement are good, but not perfect.
“I don’t think that inherently there’s anything good or about a divided Legislature, but the process leaves something to be desired — the end result is something of a triage,” Layman said, using this year’s budget deal as an example. “You can say it produced a good product, but not everybody was happy about their level of involvement. I think there’s room for improvement.”
One potential avenue for redistricting reform is establishing an independent commission to recommend legislative and congressional districts. Commissions were recently approved in Michigan and Colorado for the 2020 cycle and was proposed in Minnesota this year through HF 1605. The bill is backed by Common Cause Minnesota, a St. Paul-based advocacy group for fair elections.
“That might be interesting to look at,” Layman said of the independent commission.
Wang and the Princeton Project said beyond the bill, citizens can also utilize Minnesota’s public comment period on redistricting to hold lawmakers accountable. They can also use data form OpenPrecincts.org or software from Dave’s Redistricting App to see what a fair map would look like and get community-specific information.
The 2020 census is set to begin on April 1, 2020 with states expected to receive the head count data around March 31, 2021.