Five judges on Tuesday begin hearing Minnesotans’ opinions about fair congressional and legislative districts, a topic that surfaces every 10 years but is little understood by the public.
“Maps should be drawn around people, not politicians,” said Mike Dean, executive director of Common Cause Minnesota. “For too long, the redistricting process has been controlled by politicians and political parties.”
A five-judge panel will hear from Minnesotans for the next two weeks, and release their own district maps on Feb. 21. The judges will wait to make sure legislators and Gov. Mark Dayton do not agree to their own redistricting plan by then; that prospect appears remote given a deep partisan split on the issue.
“These new maps will have a huge impact on the outcome of the 2012 election before a single candidate has filed to run for office,” Dean said. “At a time when our politics seem so polarized, it is time for Minnesotans to become more engaged in how our government functions.”
Every 10 years the federal Census Bureau produces new population information. A 1964 U.S. Supreme Court ruling requires state officials to use that information to redraw district lines so district populations are equal.
New maps are needed, for instance, because the 2010 census shows that districts in Twin Cities’ suburbs gained population, in some cases dramatically, since the 2000 census. Rural districts generally lost population.
So those suburban districts need to shrink in geographic size while rural ones expand to make sure population in each district is the same.
Current state House district sizes range from 6,818 square miles for Rep. Tom Anzelc of northern Minnesota’s Balsam Township to two square miles for Rep. Karen Clark of Minneapolis.
Another example of the need for redistricting comes from the congressional map.
When Minnesota’s 5.3 million 2010 population is divided into eight districts, each one should have 662,991 population.
However, the 6th Congressional District, in the northern Twin Cities suburbs northwest to St. Cloud, has 759,487. The 7th Congressional District, encompassing most of western Minnesota, is home to just 625,512 people.
In a Pennsylvania case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 19-person difference from one U.S. House district to another was too much. Legislative district rulings allow more variation, but districts still must be close to the same population.
Drawing new lines is a complex political matter. Republican legislators offered new maps this year, but Democrats said that they were drawn without their input and district lines were placed to give the GOP more power. Dayton vetoed the plans, insisting on something with broad agreement between the two major parties.
That agreement never came, so judges are ready to study the issue and deliver new maps, just like they have in years past. They are involved because lawsuits were filed in state courts well before Dayton’s veto in anticipation that politicians could not handle the task.
The judicial panel likely will consider keeping “communities of interest” together, if possible, when drawing new maps. Those communities could be citizens with similarities such as social, cultural or ethnic backgrounds. Redistricting guidelines usually also require those drawing new lines to do their best not to split cities, counties and other governmental districts.
Lissa Finne of the courts said all five judges are expected at each two-hour hearing. She said they mostly will listen, but could ask clarifying questions.
New congressional and legislative maps are expected from the judges by Feb. 21, about three months before candidates must file for office.
The deadline passed for Minnesotans to request to be on the agenda of one of the eight meetings judges plan around the state. However, written statements still may be submitted to StateRedistrictingPanel@courts.state.mn.us or to Bridget Gernander, 305 Minnesota Judicial Center, 25 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul, Minn. 55155, by Oct. 21.
Chief Justice Lorie S. Gildea appointed Judges Wilhelmina M. Wright of the Appeals Court, Ivy S. Bernhardson of Hennepin County, James B. Florey of St. Louis County, Edward I. Lynch of Dakota County and John R. Rodenberg of Brown County to decide redistricting-related issues.
Later this fall, the judicial panel will consider the criteria used to draw up new districts.
Here are public hearings during which a panel of judges will listen to Minnesotans’ comments about redistricting plans (each is 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.):
— Tuesday, Bloomington Civil Plaza.
— Wednesday, Minnesota Judicial Center, Courtroom 300, St. Paul.
— Thursday, Minneapolis Public Schools John B. David Education Center, 807 Broadway St. Northwest.
— Oct. 10, Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College amphitheater, Cloquet.
— Oct. 11, Beltrami County Administration Building, Bemidji.
— Oct. 12, Moorhead City Hall.
— Oct. 13, Stearns County Administration Center, St. Cloud.
— Oct. 14, Blue Earth County Justice Center, Mankato.