Republicans, Democrats Argue Redistricting Fundamentals

Republicans want new political boundaries drawn to avoid splitting cities and counties, but Democrats say that judges who have accepted the task of producing new congressional and legislative district maps should emphasize keeping people with similar interests together.

It is a wonky, technical debate, but one that could determine who represents Minnesotans for the next decade.

The two sides agreed on many things in a Wednesday court hearing, but not on the fundamental issue about criteria used to redraw the lines, as required after each decade’s census numbers are available.

“You are the guardians of the Constitution,” former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson told a five-judge panel that accepted the task of drawing new district maps. He now represents Republicans.

The basic disagreement between Magnuson and Marc Elias, a Democratic Washington, D.C., attorney, was whether the state Constitution requires the judges to do everything possible to avoid drawing district lines that split counties, cities and other political entities. That is what Magnuson argued.

Elias, on the other hand, said that while preserving existing political lines may be important, the judges also need to consider keeping communities of interests together. For instance, the Democratic argument would keep minorities in the same district, even if a minority community spanned more than one city.

“Make sure the people of Minnesota have their interests protected,” Elias told the judges.

Voters move and communities grow, not always respecting political lines, Elias said.

Magnuson emphasized to the judges that the public must feel confident their maps are the fairest possible, and sticking to existing political boundaries would do that.

While Elias and Magnuson did not discuss it in court or with reporters afterward, the issue is important because Democrats want to make sure minorities and others that traditionally support them are not so diluted that they lose voting power. If a voting bloc is divided, it often loses power to elect a candidate.

Republicans, on the other hand, see an advantage of keeping minorities in the minority of each district because they often get little support from that segment of voters.

The five judges are expected to release their redistricting criteria soon, giving the two major political parties a chance to tweak their proposed district maps.

New maps are needed so each district contains basically the same number of people, as required by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton have failed to agree on new maps, and few think they will. That impasse resulted in the courts setting up the judicial panel to begin working since new district lines must be in place by Feb. 21.