To all the other reasons to worry about threats to democracy in America, the calendar says it's time to add another: redistricting. It's time for new political maps.
Redistricting may be a political maneuver more arcane than shorter polling hours and more bloodless than a raid on the U.S. Capitol. But in many states, the post-census redrawing of legislative and congressional districts to equalize their populations presents a once-in-a-decade opportunity for a partisan power grab that's every bit as real as brazen vote suppression.
"Ah, but not here," you might say with a hint of Minnesota smugness. Here in The State that Votes, where democracy is done right, judges handle the decennial redistricting duties, you note. They do a nice job, too.
I won't fault that reading of history. The courts have had a hand, one way or another, in every redrawing of Minnesota's district lines since the 1960s. Very seldom has either party credibly claimed that the judges did 'em wrong.
This year, too, the courts appear to be in Minnesota's redistricting drivers' seat. To be sure, the Legislature's politically mixed majorities have both conducted hearings and drawn some maps. But with less than a month remaining before the courts have said they will step in (that deadline is Feb. 15), there's been no evidence that the Republican-controlled Senate and DFL-controlled House panels intend to compromise on a single map — or, rather, two maps: one congressional, one legislative.
With the Legislature's regular session convening Jan. 31, there's time for them to act, particularly on a congressional map. That should be the easier exercise for legislators, since it does not involve the messy business of sticking a colleague with an unwinnable new district.
But there's not much time. And there's not much discernible enthusiasm for making the effort — not when a panel of five perfectly good Minnesota judges are already at work on maps of their own, and are conveniently available to take the blame for incumbent pairings.
Nevertheless, even in Minnesota, redistricting is on my democracy worry list. Minnesota's run of court-drawn maps is the result of happenstance, not design. Purely by luck of the electoral draw in the last half-century, this state's voters have elected divided government just in time for map-drawing duty.
In some decade soon — just when Minnesota could need as much trust in democracy as it can muster — that pattern could end. If the governor and both chambers of the Legislature were to be in one party's hands, my guess is that they would prove just as prone to partisan temptation as have similarly situated politicians in other states.
Meanwhile, by ducking their constitutional duty and defaulting to the courts decade after decade, Minnesota's legislators have contributed to an erosion in confidence in the political independence of the judicial branch.
Trust in government, including the courts, is one of those high-minded concepts that we editorial writers have harped about for years, to little effect. Then a mob at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 helped us make our point: trust is essential to democracy's survival. The stewards of this state's self-governance ought to see more clearly now than ever before that they can't afford to squander it.
There's a better way to arrive at new maps every 10 years, and legislators know it: The Legislature can create a bipartisan advisory commission — or better still, a fully functioning independent one — and give it the every-10-year assignment of drawing new maps. Fifteen states now employ some manner of redistricting commission. A number of Minnesota's most respected pols — with names like Mondale, Carlson, Quie, Moe and Growe — put their stamp on a commission recommendation in 2009.
Their idea was passed by the Senate that year, but not the House. A different version was passed by the House in 2020, but not the Senate. Evidently only one chamber at a time is allowed to defend democracy at the expense of an institutional prerogative, even a seldom-exercised one.
The lead plaintiff on one of the four maps under court consideration in Minnesota this year is Peter Wattson, who spent 40 years as a nonpartisan legal counsel to the state Senate (and chief redistricting tutor to Capitol journalists). It's telling that he's also a big advocate for putting future redistricting work in a commission's hands — so much so that every memorandum he has issued about this year's court case has been addressed to "my fellow advocates for a redistricting commission."
It's too late for a commission to take over this decade's map work. But "it would be nice to look ahead to 2032 and get this taken care of now," Wattson said when I had another tutoring session last week. He noted that one of the most successful such commissions, in the state of Washington, was instituted soon after the 1980s redistricting, when the defects associated with allowing legislators to draw their own districts were fresh in mind.
"Of course, in 2031 we may be governed by the military, and there may not be an election," said Wattson in a wry tone. He was trying to make me laugh. I wish I'd been able to.
Lori Sturdevant is a retired Star Tribune editorial writer. She is at firstname.lastname@example.org.