Nebraska’s Legislature is officially nonpartisan, but over the years, it by no means has been immune from ugly warring over political redistricting. The Redistricting Committee plans to release proposed maps Friday and hold public hearings next week, setting up this year’s round of partisan sparring and maneuver.
Amid the spirited debate, we highlight some key observations for government officials and the public to keep in mind.
Adequate time for debate. State Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, chairwoman of the Redistricting Committee, served the public interest by announcing that the committee will release the maps this week. It’s vital that Nebraskans have adequate time to study the proposals. Redistricting by definition means that some counties, communities or neighborhoods will be moved to a new district — in some cases even splitting individual neighborhoods. And attention always focuses intently on proposed changes in Nebraska’s three U.S. House districts. The release on Friday will allow four days before three days of public hearings begin.
Partisan skirmishing. Redistricting, here and in other states, is often a case of saying one thing but then doing another. That is, the Nebraska Legislature pledges that the map drawing won’t be done with regard to partisan political interests or particular individuals — only to see angry rhetorical brawls break out between Republican and Democratic partisans as soon as the maps come out. The pungent aroma of partisan scheming permeated the redistricting process a decade ago, and it’s highly doubtful that the process will remain odor-free this time around.
That’s especially the case this year in regard to the 2nd Congressional District, as some Republican stalwarts seem set to call for splitting Douglas County between two districts to help GOP electoral prospects. In the wake of the new census figures, the 2nd District must shrink by 47,000 people to equalize population among Nebraska’s three districts. Removing that many voters from the 2nd District while keeping Douglas County whole would make it difficult for the GOP to win either the House seat or the district’s presidential electoral vote.
But the division of Douglas County, merely to serve a political party’s narrow election interest, is blatantly opportunistic and deserves the Legislature’s rejection.
Fierce brawls are likely, too, over state legislative boundaries in western and north-central Douglas County, especially in districts currently held by Democrats. Linehan offered reassurance to her colleagues in May that her goal isn’t to “blow up” existing districts and start from scratch. On Friday, Nebraskans will see how closely map revisions follow that guidance.
Checks and balances. The best redistricting approach for Nebraska would have been an independent, nonpartisan commission to draw the lines, with the Legislature casting the deciding vote on all the maps. Under the current system, it will be no surprise to see the usual partisan skirmishing. But at the end of the day, what is the bottom-line public interest? In regard to the Legislature, the public interest is clear: Our state government must have adequate checks and balances — a key principle underscored by our nation’s founders — so that policy decisions receive robust scrutiny and debate.
A redistricting map that tilts all political advantages to favor a single party would short-circuit the check-and-balance possibility in Lincoln. Such a map would deserve to be killed through a filibuster.
Respect the census numbers. During a recent meeting of the Redistricting Committee, it was troubling to hear the argument that rural parts of the state were undercounted, so lawmakers should question the degree of rural depopulation under the census. No, the redistricting process must rely rigorously on the actual census data. Otherwise, the door will swing open to all sorts of uncertainty and attempts at manipulation.
Lawsuits sometimes prevail, killing partisan-focused redistricting maps. Debates over redistricting inevitably include claims that a map is so egregious, it justifies legal action to stop it. Sometimes that claim is just overheated rhetoric. But sometimes substantive lawsuits are filed and do win in court — as shown in a decades-long string of precedents from state and federal courts. In a recent case in North Carolina, a court threw out the redistricting maps for that state’s legislative districts, requiring lawmakers to draw up new maps, in short order, that would pass constitutional muster.
Court precedents show that redistricting maps raise constitutional concerns if the maps use racial demographics as a mere pretext to create districts favorable to a particular political party.
Work out sensible agreement. Redistricting is messy, but Nebraska state senators have an obligation to work through their partisan struggles and find agreement on reasonable, filibuster-proof maps. Gov. Pete Ricketts also has an obligation. He mustn’t veto a map just because it doesn’t meet all his political preferences. Otherwise, the wrangling at the State Capitol may push this special legislative session beyond the end-of-September deadline.
The watchword, as on so many other matters, must be sensible compromise.