Judicial panel on road to new congressional maps

How Minnesotans use roads could help determine the shape of new congressional districts.

Most major rural Minnesota roads go east and west, one of several similarities that Republicans say should lead to three mostly rural congressional districts that stretch from Wisconsin to the Dakotas.

Democratic leaders, meanwhile, claim there are so many differences between eastern and western Minnesota that they should be in separate districts. They want to keep demographic differences among voters in a district at a minimum.

That is among issues five Minnesota judges are considering as they look at roads, city and county boundaries, demographics and other factors in facing a deadline to redraw Minnesota’s congressional maps.

The judges heard arguments about district lines Wednesday, preparing to release final maps on Feb. 21. New districts must be redrawn every 10 years to ensure that each of the state’s eight districts has the same population.

Judges are involved because the Republican-controlled Legislature and Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton have not agreed on redistricting plans, and there are no signs they will make a deal before Feb. 21.

A lawyer representing Democratic voters, separate from party leaders, was critical of the GOP east-west districts.

“It certainly is not necessary to achieve population equality,” Alan Weinblatt said.

He called the Republican proposal “radical surgery” when only relatively minor changes are needed in current district lines.

Former Chief Justice Eric Magnuson, representing Republicans, said there is no major north-south highway in western Minnesota, and it makes sense for districts to follow highways.

“That is not a common way for people to travel,” he said about traffic going north and south on roads such as U.S. 75 and 59.

The GOP proposal divides fewer cities and counties among districts and puts the northern third of the state, with U.S. 2 stretching from Duluth to Moorhead, in a new 8th Congressional District.

In southern Minnesota, Republicans propose a district about like the one that now goes from Wisconsin to South Dakota along Interstate 90, but they add western counties south of the Minnesota River.

In the central part of the state, a district would be north, northwest and west of the Twin Cities, in a large part near Interstate 94.

Magnuson said the northern district features sugar beets, although he said little about Iron Range differences with the beet-growing northwest. The central district, he said, is heavy on dairy farms, while the southern district features corn and soybeans.

“Everyone is proposing fairly significant changes … to accommodate the population,” Magnuson said.

Democratic leaders’ preferred plan, meanwhile, includes a northeastern district much in line today’s 8th Congressional District.

The western Minnesota district under the DFL plan stretches all the way from Canada to Iowa, although attorney Marc Elias told the judges that it just extends the current 7th district 40 miles to the south, so there is little new.

The Democratic submission reduces the southern district’s east-west size because Rochester and Mankato are growing.

The two parties’ plans, plus a third submitted by DFL-leaning voters, propose a similar 6th Congressional District north of the Twin Cities that is smaller than today, to compensate for the area’s growing population.

“The decisions made in the north drive the rest of the map,” Elias said, noting problems keeping similar voters together in a northern district.

Republicans keep most American Indian reservations north of the Twin Cities in one district, while Democrats split them among districts.

Northwestern Minnesota has more in common with the southwest than the northeast, said Elias, a Washington, D.C. attorney. That means, he added, the DFL north-south plan results in a district with more similarities among voters.

The parties deal differently with the current 2nd district, south of the Twin Cities.

Republicans mix more rural counties like Goodhue and Wabasha with mostly suburban ones such as Dakota. Democrats, on the other hand, only include rural Goodhue with suburban counties.

The DFL plan would put incumbent U.S. Reps. Michele Bachmann and Betty McCollum in the same district, but would not force races between any other incumbents. The Republican plan does not pit incumbents against each other.

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