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A commission of retired judges, rather than elected politicians, should take over deciding how state and federal districts are drawn as a way to fix a system broken by self-interest and self-survival, a group of Minnesota political heavyweights said in a legislative hearing on Friday.

The group that included former Vice President Walter Mondale and former governors Arne Carlson and Al Quie said the current system of "re-districting" legislative districts after every 10-year census is inherently rife with conflicts of interest. It leaves voters distrustful of the process because legislators effectively determine what their districts will look like and who will likely be voting for them.

"We now have a system where incumbents seek their own constituencies as opposed to the constituencies seeking their public servants. That is quite a reversal of what a representative government ought to be," Carlson told a Senate committee which will be considering several pieces of legislation this session to change the district selection process.

The issue could become increasingly important in Minnesota after the 2010 census, when it is projected the state could lose a congressional seat.

The proposal, developed through a group headed by Carlson and Mondale and coordinated through the Humphrey Institute's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance, recommends a non-partisan, five-member panel made up of retired appellate court judges to slice up the state into legislative districts. The process is designed to minimize political polarization, protect traditionally underrepresented groups and restore confidence in the electoral system.

"Today there are very few competitive congressional districts to be found anywhere in America," Mondale told the committee. "Politicians have become increasingly able to pick their own voters and horror stories abound."

Too many 'safe' seats

The Mondale-Carlson group urges the adoption of a process which encourages more competitive races, which would better reflect voters' interests. "Safe" seats flourish under the current system. The average margin of victory in Minnesota's 2006 legislative and congressional elections was 25 percent. In 2006, which was often seen as a sea change for elected officials, more than eight out of 10 incumbents nevertheless won nationally and in the state, according to research conducted by Larry Jacobs, the director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

The group advocates encouraging competitiveness in races but would leave the definition up to legislators. In Arizona, which has adopted a similar commission-form of determining redistricting, a competitive race is defined as one in which opponents are within a margin of seven points between each other.

Former Senate DFL Majority Leader Roger Moe presided over three redistricting efforts in Minnesota, describing the current process as "slow moving political toxin."

In Minnesota, the Legislature has the constitutional responsibility to redraw boundaries, but the process has historically become bogged down in court challenges and partisanship. In 2000, for instance, the three-way conflict between the Republican House, the DFL Senate and Independence Party's Gov. Jesse Ventura proved intractable, forcing the establishment of a five-judge panel to draw the districts.

Supporters of reforming the system also suggest the districts should be redrawn quicker after the census is completed. Following the 2000 census, state and federal districts were not finalized until March 19, 2002. Former Minnesota Secretary of State Joan Growe said redistricting should ideally be completed for state and federal offices by the end of August in a year ending in "1" and local offices by November of that same year.

Mark Brunswick • 651-222-1636