Two suits may change city elections

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October 20, 2003 // UPDATED 11:06 am - April 30, 2007
By: Scott Russell
Scott Russell

Under-the-radar legal wrangling could force early elections or alter new wards

This is one of those rare Novembers wherein Minneapolitans do not go to the polls to vote. However, political intrigue is afoot as two lawsuits quietly move forward, challenging recent ward redistricting and the timing of the next election.

Behind-the-scenes, expert testimony and depositions have been taken for early 2004 court battles. People are asking questions that go to the core of our democracy.

Green Party City Councilmembers Dean Zimmermann (6th Ward) and Natalie Johnson Lee (5th Ward) and others are suing the city to redraw ward boundary maps in place for the 2005 Minneapolis elections. They fault the political process used to draw the map that they say contains racial "packing" and "cracking" and creates odd-shaped wards that violate the charter -- all points the city contests.

The city's map also bumps Zimmermann into Ward 9, where he would run against incumbent DFLer Gary Schiff.

Another group wants the map Zimmermann's group is fighting to be used sooner.

Minneapolis DFL State Rep. Phyllis Kahn, Southwest residents Mark Kaplan and Ann Berget, and others are suing to force a city election before 2005. They say the current wards, based on the 1990 Census, have grown so unequal in population that they subvert the Constitution's one-person, one-vote principle.

Kahn's opponents say earlier elections would cut short four-year terms that voters thought they granted in 2001. They add than an extra election would cost the city an estimated $250,000 to $400,000, depending on primaries.

The city is already spending money. The City Attorney's staff handles the Kahn lawsuit but hired outside counsel for the Zimmermann/Johnson Lee lawsuit since councilmembers are, in effect, suing other councilmembers. So far, the city has spent $116,000 on that suit, and the bills will mount as both sides prepare for trial. If the city loses either suit, it could be forced to pay the other side's legal bills.

A settlement might limit legal costs. As a settlement offer, Zimmerman has released a proposed new ward map he said is fairer than the Charter Commission's map.

Attorney Larry Levanthal, who represents the Zimmermann group, said he was not optimistic about a settlement. Both sides must have motions to U.S. District Court Judge John Tunheim by year's end, he said. They must be ready for trial March 1.

Assistant City Attorney James Moore said the parties in the Kahn early-election suit would file motions by Feb. 2. A May decision is possible.

At a practical level, the two lawsuits are linked. If the city loses the Kahn suit, it would hold the election using the new map as early as 60 days after the decision. If it then loses the Johnson Lee/Zimmermann redistricting suit, it might have to hold another election because the new map's boundaries would be invalid.

Kahn said the two cases could be combined.

"They both say the process has been bad, but they are saying the process has been bad for different reasons," she said. "They are saying the process is bad because the district lines are bad and, in fact, they violate the city charter. We are saying the process is bad because the election is too far away."

The redistricting suit Zimmermann said his side gave the city a proposed new ward boundary map in July. He faulted the City Attorney's office for not bringing the map to the City Council in a timely manner and recently began to deliver copies to councilmembers himself, he said.

The city declined to comment on the litigation, a city spokesperson said.

Zimmermann recently released the criteria used to draw his settlement map.

  • Each ward should change as little as possible. The purpose is to equalize population, not draw new wards.

  • Wards should be "blockish," not convoluted shapes.

  • The redistricting process should not remove an incumbent from a ward; it is up to the voters to keep or reject incumbents.

  • Attention should be paid to communities of interest.

  • Wards should not be created for political partisan reasons, but it is "OK" to create opportunity wards for racial groups.

  • Where possible, ward boundaries should follow neighborhood lines.

    Zimmermann's group said the Redistricting Committee's new ward boundaries "pack" too many minority residents -- 81 percent -- in Near North-side's Ward 5, violating the Voting Rights Act.

    University of Minnesota Law School Professor Guy-Uriel E. Charles, retained by Zimmermann's group as an expert witness, described packing in a sworn statement as "concentrating an identifiable group in one district --much more than is necessary for that group to elect a representative of its choice in that district -- but reducing the influence of that group in surrounding districts."

    The map also "cracked" the Native American community that lives in the near South-side's Ward 6 into two wards, another Voting Rights Act violation. "Cracking is a process whereby redistricters split a traditional political community so as to diminish that community's political power," Charles wrote.

    Zimmermann said his group's map would have four wards with a majority of minority residents -- compared to three majority-minority wards in the Redistricting Committee's map, according to city data. Zimmermann's map also features a fifth ward that would have approximately 48 percent minority residents; the city's map has two such wards.

    The Redistricting Committee's map moves two incumbent councilmembers out of their wards, Zimmermann and Robert Lilligren (8th Ward), who is part Native American, who would live in the soon-to-be-vacant 6th Ward. Zimmermann's map keeps him and all incumbents in their wards.

    Zimmermann's group also delve into a geometrical argument, saying the North/Northeast Ward 3 in the Redistricting Committee's map is more than twice as long as it is wide, a violation of city charter requirements. At issue: How to measure length and width?

    It seems straightforward. However, length could be a ward's north-south measurement, as the city appears to argue, or between its two most distant points, regardless of the north-south lines, as Zimmermann's group argues. How one measures determines whether the proposed map violates the charter or not.

    In its court filing, the city denies the charges or says it lacks information to judge them. It goes one step further, saying it has no authority or jurisdiction to approve or reject a redistricting plan the Redistricting Commission drew.

    Damages sought by Zimmermann's group "may be the result of actions undertaken by others over whom the Defendant had no control or right to control and for whose actions the Defendant is not responsible."

    The city has retained Richard Engstrom, a University of New Orleans research professor of political science and endowed chair of Africana Studies, as an expert witness.

    The city's voting history in recent Council and mayoral races do not show significant racially polarized voting, he said.

    The early-election suit Kahn tried unsuccessfully to get the Legislature to force Minneapolis to hold early elections -- a bill opposed by the Minneapolis City Council resolution 12-0.

    Kahn and others filed suit July 25 in Hennepin County District Court, saying City Council election delays violated the fundamental one-person, one vote principle.

    Ward 6 now has roughly 25 percent more people than Ward 11, Kahn's group said in a prepared statement. Further, two wards in effect after the 2005 election -- 3 and 8, which include slices of Lyndale and Kingfield -- currently have no councilmember living within their boundaries. Current Councilmembers have less incentive to care about the portions of the ward that will not vote for them in the next election, Kahn's group argues.

    City officials such as Councilmember Scott Benson (11th Ward) said changing the election date would be unfair to 2001 voters who thought they were electing a representative to a four-year term. Zimmermann -- who opposed Kahn's legislation -- said the legislative rules prevented new ward boundaries in time for the 2001 elections.

    Kahn's ally Kaplan said Minneapolis prides itself on the millions of dollars it spends on citizen participation, through such efforts as CCP/SAFE and the Neighborhood Revitalization Program.

    "Yet when it comes to the most common and important form of citizen participation --voting -- the city is unwilling to pay the relatively small cost to hold an election," he said in a news release.

    Aug. 20, the city moved to have the case transferred from state court to federal court. Kahn's group is trying to return the case to state court. Kahn's group called the city's move a delaying strategy; the city declined to comment on its strategy or legal reasoning.

    Federal District Court Paul Magnuson will hear the motion later this year.