Redistricting, even in Nebraska’s officially nonpartisan Legislature, has often proven a messy affair. And it’s not just the party-focused machinations of some lawmakers — it’s also the difficulty, separate from partisan politics, of redrawing rural districts in the wake of population decline.
Last week the Legislature’s redistricting committee sent a positive message in its initial meeting when some of its members showed independence in their voting. Sen. Tom Briese of Albion, a Republican, voted with the Democratic members on one issue. Sen. Justin Wayne of Omaha, a Democrat, voted with the Republican members on another.
The more the committee demonstrates that it’s guided by sound redistricting principles and less by narrow partisan scheming, the better the result for Nebraska. The committee will fail that test if its maps consistently favor one political interest over another.
A decade ago, lawmakers bickered furiously along partisan lines over some of the political maps. The Legislature will be making a big mistake if it repeats that pattern this time around. Past disputes sometimes fueled lawsuits — again, not at all what Nebraska needs.
This week, the Legislature considers a resolution from the redistricting committee on guiding principles lawmakers should follow. Honest debate is likely on whether to insist that the core of a district be protected. Many parts of the resolution are sound — that the Legislature should keep districts compact; keep counties politically intact as much as possible; and refrain from “favoring a political party.”
Final census figures won’t be released until mid-August. The Legislature ultimately will decide on the maps in a special session. Big questions include: How will Douglas and Sarpy Counties be drawn in the 2nd U.S. House District, since the district will once again shrink as a result of the Omaha area’s population growth? Will Douglas County remain intact in the 2nd District? What district or districts may be shifted from rural areas to the Omaha or Lincoln areas? How will the addition of one or more districts in eastern Nebraska affect the boundaries of other districts?
Members of the redistricting committee, regardless of party, must aim for fairness, and not partisan opportunism.