On Saturday morning, state legislators who represent parts of Monroe County appeared at Bloomington’s city hall to give constituents an update on this year’s session and to field questions from the 40 or so people who showed up.
The first question invited legislators to “foretell the future” of possible legislation on redistricting reform, given that previous proposals on the topic had “melted away into thin air.”
Historically, proposals for reform of the boundary change process for state legislative and congressional districts have included the establishment of some kind of independent redistricting commission.
In response the question on Saturday, Republican Jeff Ellington, who represents District 62 in the state house, challenged area officials to create local redistricting commissions. Such commissions could handle the upcoming task of redistricting the six districts of Bloomington’s city council and the four districts of Monroe County’s county council.
“It’d be a good thing, … if it’s an important thing for my district, to help
us and show us at a local level, because [local Bloomington officials] have the option to have a committee or commission to do the city council maps,” Ellington said.
All nine members of the Bloomington city council are Democrats. Six of the seven county councilors are Democrats.
The question at Saturday’s event came from James Allison, who’s a member of a local League of Women Voters (LWV) special committee on redistricting reform. It’s a committee chaired by former Bloomington mayor, Tomi Allison, a Democrat who served from 1983 to 1995. The most recent Republican mayor of Bloomington was John Hooker, who served from 1964–1971. The League of Women voters was one of the sponsors of Saturday’s event.
Allison invited the community to a discussion of redistricting reform
to be hosted by LWV on Feb. 2 at 3 p.m. in the Monroe County Public Library. That time is well before Super Bowl kick-off, which is set for 6:30 p.m., Allison noted.
Redistricting reform is a perennial topic in the state of Indiana and across the country, because of gerrymandering—the practice of manipulating the boundaries of districts to maintain or create a political advantage. In a state like Indiana, with a better than two-thirds Republican majority in both chambers of the legislature, allegations of gerrymandering are more commonly made against the Republican Party.
In his response to the question on Saturday, Democrat Mark Stoops, who represents District 40 in the state senate, acknowledged that the issue of gerrymandering is not limited to the Republican Party. “When Democrats had control of the legislature in the past, they gerrymandered the districts,” Stoops said.
Counting bills in both chambers of the current legislative session, five pieces of legislation have been introduced addressing redistricting reform, none of which have been given a hearing in committee. Deadlines for committee action are approaching fast in this year’s short session, which wraps up in mid-March. So the bills proposed this session will likely die, like about 40 other similar pieces of legislation over the last decade.
Ellington said on Saturday, “I don’t see anything in the house or the senate that deals with redistricting moving this session.”
The kind of statistics that show gerrymandering on the state level, according to the LWV, include a mismatch between presidential election results and representation in the state legislature.
The most recent presidential election, in 2016, showed 57-percent of Hoosiers voting for the Republican nominee, Donald Trump. Redistricting advocates point to that outcome as not commensurate with the 67 out of 100 seats that Republicans hold in the state house or the 40 out of 50 seats (80 percent) that Republicans hold in the state senate.
The better than two-thirds majority that Republicans hold in both chambers of the state legislature is something that Sen. Mark Stoops (D) cited Saturday morning in his remarks on redistricting. About the statewide distribution of Democrats and Republicans, Stoops said, “It’s not 80 percent of Republican, 20 percent Democrats, I mean, it’s not far off a split—you know, maybe it’s 45-percent Democrat 55-percent Republican.” That 45-55 split is not reflected in the Republican super-majorities in the house and senate, Stoops said.
In the 2018 race for US Senate, a statewide contest, the Democratic Party’s share was right around the 45 percent that Stoops described.
2018 US Senate Race
|Candidate||Mike Braun (R)||Joe Donnelly (D)||Lucy Brenton (L)|
On Saturday morning, Ellington made a similar kind of argument about the local landscape: Republican Party representation on the Bloomington city council and the Monroe County council is not commensurate with the number of Republican voters in those jurisdictions.
Ellington put the Republican voting population of Monroe County at better than 40 percent, which is not consistent with the one Republican representative on the seven-member county council, he said. The one Republican is Marty Hawk.
In the 2016 presidential race, Democrat Hillary Clinton had 58.6 percent of the vote in Monroe County. Countywide support for the Republican candidate, Donald Trump, was 35 percent.
Adding in other non-Democrat votes, from Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party candidate Jill Stein—who had 5 percent and 1 percent of the vote, respectively—would add up to the 40-plus percentage Ellington described.
Less than that—around 34 percent—was tallied by non-Democrats in Monroe County for the 2018 US Senate race. Republican Mike Braun had 29.9 percent of the Monroe County vote. Libertarian Lucy Brenton had 4.2 percent.
Ellington pegged the Republican voting population in the city of Bloomington at around 35–38 percent. That’s not consistent with the fact that no Republicans are represented on Bloomington’s city council, Ellington said.
Bloomington’s Republican population would come out less than Ellington’s estimate, if measured by some recent elections with citywide voting. For the 2018 US Senate race, inside the city of Bloomington, non-Democrat totals were just about 13 percent. Republican Mike Braun had 9.5 percent of the vote, and Libertarian Lucy Brenton had 4.1 percent.
In the 2015 municipal election, which was the most recent contested mayoral election in Bloomington, Republican John Turnbull received about 22.5 percent of the vote.
If Republican voters make up just 13 percent or 22.5 percent of the Bloomington electorate, it’s enough for some support of an argument along the lines of the one Ellington was making. Based on those percentages, commensurate representation would mean that at least one, if not two, out of nine Bloomington city council representatives would be Republicans.
The possibility of establishing a local commission for deciding city council districts seems like it could be at least an outside possibility.
District 6 representative Steve Volan was elected president of the city council to start off the year. Volan remarked at a meeting of the council’s rules committee last fall that among the most significant conflicts of interest all councilmembers face is the fact that it’s councilmembers who are allowed to decide the boundaries of their council districts. It’s something he said the council could take a look at. The rules committee was at the time discussing how financial conflicts of interest are handled for individual councilmembers.
What’s the time frame for establishing a local redistricting commission?
It is in 2022, the second year after the federal decennial census, when districts for city council seats in “second-class” cities in Indiana like Bloomington will be redrawn if necessary. That’s according to state statute. (“Second-class” cities in Indiana are designated as those with a population of at least 35,000 and up to 600,000.)
The criteria that districts have to satisfy include: reasonable “compactness”; respect for precinct boundaries except in certain cases; and balanced population, among other things.
If demographic shifts measured by the 2020 census, turn out to require drawing different city council district boundaries, the tight geographic clustering of some current councilmembers could mean they get lumped into the same district after redistricting.
By altering the boundaries of District 5 just a little, a new District 5 could be drawn for the 2023 elections to include Kate Rosenbarger, Dave Rollo, Isabel Piedmont-Smith and Steve Volan. That would guarantee at least three new members for 2024—unless some of the four chose to move their residence, or run for one of the at-large seats. (Matt Flaherty would be easy to include as well, but he has an at-large seat, which means he can live anywhere in the city.)
Evident on a mapped plot is a four-member cluster. Kate Rosenbarger (District 1), Isabel Piedmont-Smith (District 5), Steve Volan (District 6) and Matt Flaherty (at large) all live under a mile walking distance of each other. The four also make up the council’s land use committee.
When that committee’s membership was decided at the council’s first meeting of the year, councilmember Dave Rollo wondered if it would be appropriate to appoint councilmember Susan Sandberg to the committee, instead of one of the other three. He cited the fact that she’d also be serving on the plan commission. Sandberg’s response was to say that plan commission service is already time consuming—but said she’d be willing to serve on the committee if other councilmembers felt it would provide a necessary “balance.”
In what sense would Sandberg have provided balance? Sandberg’s deliberations during the UDO hearings last year were in favor of preventing duplexes and triplexes as a possible land use in several residential neighborhoods. Volan and Piedmont-Smith (as councilmembers) and Flaherty and Rosenbarger (as members of the public at the time) advocated for duplexes and triplexes as permitted uses in residential neighborhoods.
Based on a plot of home addresses, Sandberg would have also provided geographic balance to the committee, in addition to philosophical balance .