Nebraskans are a practical people. When a job must get done, the thinking goes, it’s best that it be settled in a straightforward, no-nonsense way.
Unfortunately, that’s not how the Nebraska Legislature handles political redistricting — the redrawing of political boundaries every 10 years after each new census.
On so many issues, the Legislature commendably looks past politics and works together. But mention the word “redistricting,” and the normally collaborative process breaks down. The Legislature undergoes a bit of a personality change, going from a positive atmosphere to one marked by tense relations, mistrust and frenzy.
Straight talk often gets crowded out during redistricting debates, as lawmakers’ proposals — aimed at helping a particular party or individual incumbents — are described by their sponsors as merely innocent, technical recommendations.
The main tensions traditionally involve the revamping of Nebraska’s three congressional districts and the 49 officially nonpartisan state legislative districts. But sometimes hard feelings arise as well over the maneuvers involving the other districts whose lines the Legislature also decides: the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Public Service Commission and State Board of Education.
This breakdown in the Legislature’s normally constructive atmosphere was dramatic during the 2011 debates, notes Sen. Bill Avery, chairman of the Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee. “We were at our partisan worst,” he told The World-Herald. “It was bitter, it was divisive, it was highly partisan.”
Additional factors also encourage Nebraska’s messy, agitated approach to redistricting. Incumbent state senators tend to get frantic, for instance, about not being thrown into a redrawn district where they would have to seek re-election against another incumbent lawmaker.
And as experience in 2011 showed, the Legislature’s debates are increasingly painful and tense when it comes to redrawing districts in the state’s low-population rural areas, totally separate from partisan considerations. In 2011, senators lamented that the rural-district challenge will likely grow more difficult and divisive as each new census shows further population shifts toward Nebraska’s cities.
Surely there is a better approach, a redistricting approach that focuses on drawing maps that are sensibly shaped and that put together areas with common interests. Maps with district shapes determined not by parliamentary maneuvering but by sober, practical line-drawing.
There is a better way, and Iowa and 20 other states have adopted some form of it: having an independent commission draw the lines.
A proposal from Sen. Russ Karpisek would shift Nebraska to the kind of redistricting approach used in Iowa, and the idea deserves support. Under Legislative Bill 976, a six-member independent advisory commission would be appointed by the Legislature to undertake the job. Two members would be appointed from each congressional district, one Republican and one Democrat.
Sure, the proposal faces a big hurdle in winning approval in a legislature where Republicans hold a sizable majority, but that doesn’t remove the worthiness of Karpisek’s idea.
For proof, look at the situation in Iowa. In 2011, did either of the two political parties erupt in opposition to the independent commission’s proposals? Did Gov. Terry Branstad, a Republican?
They did not. Quite the opposite: The Iowa House approved the new maps on a 90-7 vote. In the Senate, the vote was 48-1 in favor.
Branstad praised the maps. They encouraged a healthy competitiveness between the two parties, he said.
That’s not all. The state legislative maps placed some 41 Iowa lawmakers in districts with other incumbent legislators. And the mapping had to take into account the loss of one seat in the U.S. House. Yet, as noted, both houses of the Iowa legislature passed the new maps by overwhelming majorities.
There was grumbling, of course, about some of the independent commission’s redistricting decisions. The key point, though, is that Iowans know the lines were drawn by a committee that was guided not by partisan maneuvering or the narrow interests of individual politicians but by broader considerations, such as having compact districts.
Iowa offers a practical approach to redistricting that’s superior to the hysteria-filled atmosphere that erupts every 10 years at the Nebraska State Capitol. Adopting the new approach would be a sensible improvement for Nebraska.