Monday, January 11, 2010

Support grows for Minneapolis to rethink the way it draws election districts


Momentum is building at Minneapolis City Hall for devising a fairer process for drawing the ward and other election boundaries that govern for whom voters may vote.

The effort is being led by Cam Gordon, new chair of the City Council's Election Committee, supported by Elizabeth Glidden, that panel's chair for the last four years.

They've asked the Charter Commission to devise a fairer, more transparent process for drawing election lines that could be presented to voters as a charter amendment next fall. The commission agreed last week to establish a subgroup to work on a timeline for doing so. The next redistricting happens in 2012.

"I strongly believe this process could be improved," Gordon told the commission.

Some of the momentum for changing how political lines are drawn comes from a legal challenge by Green Party candidates and others to the boundaries drawn in 2002 by the city's last redistricting commission. That lawsuit alleged that the redistricting group lacked enough minority group or Green members to be representative, and that it treated minority voters unfairly.

A federal judge found the 2002 plan met legal standards. Nevertheless, Charter Commission member Andrea Rubenstein said, the lawsuit raised issues that deserve examination.

Gordon was a Green Party official and plaintiff in the legal challenge. Greens felt particularly aggrieved by the last redistricting because it put both of the party's council incumbents into wards where they were forced to run against DFL incumbents. Both lost.

The charter defines the makeup of the redistricting commission. One member is picked by the council's majority party , another by the rest of the council members, which currently would be Gordon, the council's only non-DFLer. The Charter Commission names two members from each political party that got 5 percent of the vote in the last statewide election -- DFL, Republican and Independence in the 2002 redistricting -- and two more from a minority party or unaffiliated candidates.

Despite the fact that Greens had elected two of 13 council members in 2002 and no party besides the DFL elected any others, Greens got only one redistricting seat to two each for Republican and Independence representatives.

Charter Commissioner Todd Ferrara, who served on the last redistricting panel, called the mapping process contentious and political.

Although some other cities allow their councils to draw political boundaries, there seems to be consensus at City Hall against that approach. St. Paul charges its charter commission with drawing city election lines. Charter commissions in both cities are appointed by the chief judges of their respective district courts.

Glidden said a better solution might not emerge for Minneapolis, but that the amount of criticism of the last process warrants a review. Mayoral policy director Peter Wagenius said that although the mayor plays no formal role in redistricting, "I think it's safe to say there's got to be a better way to go about it."

The drawing of political lines takes on more importance now because the school board will be partially elected from districts starting with this fall's elections. Its initial districts will follow the six Park Board districts, which also are up for revision next year after this year's federal census.

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