Civic beat :: Political boundaries

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October 11, 2010
By: Jake Weyer
Jake Weyer
New process for drawing political boundaries heads to voters

On the ballot in Minneapolis Nov. 2 is a question few voters are likely aware of, but it’s one that could literally reshape municipal constituencies and ultimately city elections.   

The question is whether the city should hand over to the Charter Commission the duties of redrawing boundaries for the City Council wards and school and park districts used to elect city leaders. In the past that process — done every 10 years to account for population shifts revealed in census data — has been the task of a specially appointed Redistricting Commission, comprised mostly of political party representatives.  

The appointment process for that group has been complex and controversial, prompting concerns about political parties shaping districts for their own gains rather than constituent interests.

As the process exists now, the majority of council members who consider themselves part of the same political party appoint one person to the Redistricting Commission, according to the city’s website. The remaining council members appoint another person. Then the Charter Commission chooses two members from each major political party whose candidate for governor or U.S. senator received at least 5 percent of the total votes within Minneapolis in the previous election. At least one appointee from each party has to be from a list the party provides.

The Charter Commission can appoint up to two additional members who are not affiliated with a political party and once assembled, the Redistricting Commission appoints an additional person to oversee the group.

City Council members Cam Gordon (2nd Ward) and Elizabeth Glidden (8th Ward) have led efforts to reform the process. Their hope is that the Charter Commission, advised by a panel it appoints, will bring more transparency, fairness and non-partisanship to the revamp of the city’s political map.  

Gordon, a Green Party member, is the only current council member who is not a DFLer. He was involved in his party’s unsuccessful challenge of the redistricting process in court in 2002. Though the City Council had two Green members that year, the party only had one representative on the Redistricting Commission, making it outnumbered by Republican and Independence party representatives.

During a discussion about redistricting Oct. 4 at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, Glidden, who chairs the council’s Committee on Elections,
argued that the Redistricting Commission’s makeup has not reflected the city politically. She called the current appointment process “kind of nutty.”

“From my perspective it just makes absolutely no sense that in a — and I am a DFLer — that in a DFL town that you can have the DFL, essentially those particular interests, outnumbered by other political representatives. That makes no sense to me.”  

Barry Clegg, chairman of the Minneapolis Charter Commission, was also part of the redistricting discussion and noted that compared to other municipalities throughout the country, the system of having political parties draw election boundaries is unusual. Most redistricting is done by city councils or non-partisan agencies.

The chief Hennepin County judge appoints the Minneapolis Charter Commission, a 15-member group that reviews and formulates proposals on the city’s charter. The process for becoming a commissioner is somewhat informal, said Clegg, who mentioned he wasn’t even asked whether he was affiliated with a political party.

Glidden said the city planned to work with the state to make the commissioner selection process, which is the same in counties throughout Minnesota, a little more involved. She and Clegg also recognized that the city’s all-white Charter Commission does a poor job of reflecting the city’s diversity. They think that could change.

“We’re not a very diverse group,” Clegg said. “But hopefully, if this proposal passes, the fact that the charter commission itself will have authority to redistrict and draw ward boundaries, will bring more interest in serving on the Charter Commission.”  

Asked whether the Charter Commission could turn into another political hotbed with party representatives joining for the purpose of drawing election boundaries, Clegg said that was unlikely given the commissioners’ four-year terms and the 10-year cycle for redistricting.  

Mike Dean, executive director of nonpartisan clean-election advocacy group Common Cause Minnesota, said taking the partisanship and personal politics out of the redistricting process would be a step forward for Minneapolis communities. But he said the Charter Commission, along with diversifying its members, would need to set better criteria for drawing districts.

Right now, the guidelines are limited to geographic dimensions, contiguousness, numerical designations and population limits. Based on the city’s 386,618-person population in 2000, the ideal population per ward was 29,432. Dean said issues such as competitiveness and community interest should be part of the criteria discussion and the public should be engaged in the restructuring.

If the proposal passes Nov. 2, the new process would be used in 2012, when census data is released. That means it would be in place for the 2013 election.

“Anytime you are uncertain about who is going to be your base and how you’re going to be elected or what you need to do to be reelected… that causes all sorts of new considerations,” Glidden said. “New people you need to get to know, new places where you need to make sure you are really involved in the issues that are important.”