LINCOLN — The partisan divide in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan State Legislature was evident as lawmakers adopted guidelines for redrawing the state’s voting districts following the 2020 Census.
Legislators, who will meet in a special redistricting session in September, voted 31-16 on Wednesday to approve a set of redistricting principles that differ somewhat from those used during redistricting efforts in 2011 and 2001.
Those are the last times lawmakers took on the highly partisan chore of redrawing districts for the Legislature, the state’s three U.S. congressional districts, and other statewide offices, such as Public Service Commission and University of Nebraska Board of Regents.
All those who voted “yes” on the resolution Wednesday are registered Republicans; all those who voted “no” are Democrats.
A key issue concerned whether to weaken a standard used in past redistricting processes: to “preserve the cores of prior districts.”
State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan of Elkhorn, a Republican who heads the Redistricting Committee, won approval of an amendment that would make preserving the cores of district more optional, by “allowing” the committee to use that as a guideline, instead of absolutely requiring it.
Linehan said the change reflected public testimony at a legislative hearing last week, and would give the committee — comprised of five Republicans and four Democrats — more flexibility in redrawing voting districts due to shifts in the state’s population from west to east.
But a trio of Democratic state senators objected to the amendment. They said that watering down the well-defined requirement of maintaining the core of a district, and using a less-well-defined standard of “preserving communities of interest,” made it more likely that political games could be played.
“We could say that everyone in Omaha is in the same community of interest, and now we can scramble the districts in this (redistricting) process,” said Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, a Democrat. Under that standard, South Omaha could lose a state senator, he said.
Another Democrat, Bellevue Sen. Carol Blood said there was no compelling testimony to weaken the preserve-the-core guideline at last week’s public hearing on redistricting standards. She said she overheard rural groups who called for changing the “core” guideline at the public hearing talking among themselves on what exactly to say. When they were asked to explain their stance, Blood said testifiers didn’t have good explanations, which seemed suspicious.
Blood said that if more “shenanigans” occur in the redistricting process, she will call them out.
But Linehan assured senators that her goal, as leader of the redistricting process, was not to “blow up” existing districts and start from scratch. Doing that, she said, would not gain support of a majority of the 49-member Unicameral.
Linehan pointed out that 26 other states use “preserving communities of interest” as a redistricting guideline, while only 11 states use preserving the “core” of existing districts.
“My intention is to look at the (census) numbers, and try and be as fair as possible, keeping communities of interest in mind, and trying to preserve the core of the district,” she said.
Lawmakers, in a vote along party lines, also rejected an effort to change the population deviation standard for legislative districts from 10% to 8%.