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Midlands Voices: Nebraska must pursue responsible redistricting policies for 2021

Midlands Voices: Nebraska must pursue responsible redistricting policies for 2021

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As directed by the Nebraska Constitution, the Legislature “shall redistrict the state after each federal decennial census.” And as determined by state statutes, the election maps to be drawn are for representatives from Nebraska to the U.S. House of Representatives, judges of the Supreme Court, and members of the Legislature, the State Board of Education, the Public Service Commission and the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. The decennial redistricting of all other subdivisions of government is conducted by the local governments themselves.

The Nebraska Legislature’s Rule 3, Section 6 states, “The Redistricting Committee of the Legislature shall be established … in January of each year ending in the number one.” A hybrid construction set by previous legislatures, “The committee shall be comprised of nine members of the Legislature, three from each congressional district existing on January 1 of each year ending in zero. The Executive Board shall appoint the members of the committee in January of each year ending in one. No more than five members appointed to the committee shall be affiliated with the same political party.”

The composition of the nine-person committee, with its slight preference to the majority party, is eminently fair in my opinion and protects well the interests of the minority party. The chair and vice chair, chosen by the committee itself from different political parties, serves as a good method to defuse partisanship tendencies. Legislative Bill 1207, my 2020 proposal, would further reduce partisanship by requiring a two-third vote of the redistricting committee members to elect the committee officers. Of course, it’s inevitable that political influences will creep into the process, but the judicious selection of members who serve on the committee would minimize the internal and external forces that will try to exert influence the process.

It’s obvious that the primary objective of redistricting is to redraw district maps to reflect the ever-changing geographic population trends. A primary pressure point is the 100-year eastward migration of population in Nebraska, from rural to urban areas of our state. In 1966 the Supreme Court declared that district maps must include relatively equal populations. Thus, legislative districts in rural districts can cover multiple counties, while there can be many legislative districts in a single county in an urban area. It is estimated that rural areas of our state could lose one or two districts in the 2021 redistricting process.

I will reintroduce the provisions in LB 1207 in the 2021 legislative session. The bill includes refinements suggested by Sens. Sara Howard, Wendy DeBoer and Tony Vargas that prohibit consideration of the political affiliation and voting data of registered voters, and demographic information other than from the U.S. Bureau of the Census when drawing legislative boundaries. The bill also retains the important provision that a hearing on the proposed maps occur in each of the congressional districts in the state. This feature provides necessary transparency and accountability to demonstrate to our citizens that the process was fair and impartial. An early hearing date for and passage of the bill in 2021 would make it possible to begin the redistricting process soon after the census data are released.

In these times of hyper-partisanship, redrafting election maps can be a daunting proposition. Not always perfect to be sure, but the Nebraska Legislature has historically entered into the process in good faith and succeeded in finishing the process without undue bitterness or rancor. Let’s hope the effort in 2021 will be accomplished with a similarly positive outcome.

Redistricting will affect who represents you on state and national issues. Make sure your interests are heard. Encourage your state senator to promote nonpartisan redistricting next year.

John S. McCollister, of Omaha, represents District 20 in the Nebraska Legislature.

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