Every 10 years, the Nebraska Legislature redraws the state’s political boundaries through redistricting. This act carries enormous importance across the state. Lawmakers will convene in less than a month for a special session to approve the new maps, and Nebraskans may be surprised at how little time state senators will have to make their decisions.
Lawmakers, under current plans, are to begin their special session on Sept. 13 and wrap up their work by the end of September.
Nebraskans may also be surprised at how little time the public will have to study and respond to the proposed maps at hearings in mid-September. According to guidance presented to state senators in June, the public hearings will be held right away — on the second and third days of the special session.
That’s an inadequate amount of time. It’s also a glaring difference from 2011. That year, the Redistricting Committee approved, in a split vote by party, its proposed map for the U.S. House districts on May 5. Lawmakers held the hearings on those and other redistricting maps eight days later, on May 13. The Legislature adopted the final maps on May 26.
The Legislature’s general rules for special sessions give up to five calendar days for hearings to be held on bills after their introduction.
Now and throughout the process, Speaker Mike Hilgers and the Redistricting Committee should place a particular emphasis on openness, releasing information as soon as possible to all 49 state senators as well as the public. Such an approach can buttress public confidence and lessen the inevitable political tensions.
As part of that effort, the Legislature should allow videostreaming testimony at the public hearings. Such an option proved its value for hearings during the COVID-plagued 2020 session.
Lawmakers this year face a degree of time pressure on redistricting, it’s true, since it will help the Secretary of State’s Office and county election officials to receive the new maps as soon as possible.
In September, the redistricting maps — for the U.S. House, Legislature, University of Nebraska Board of Regents, State Board of Education, Public Service Commission and Nebraska Supreme Court — will receive three rounds of floor debate by the full Legislature.
Redrawing the political boundaries obviously creates a huge temptation for lawmakers and members of the public to indulge in self-serving partisan action. State senators and others involved in this year’s redistricting should be mindful of guideposts to lessen that danger:
Tactics that spur lawsuits. Lawmakers have some leeway in setting the populations of districts for the Legislature. But the Redistricting Committee must avoid allowing a population deviation for rural districts that is consistently and significantly greater than that for urban districts. Otherwise, a lawsuit could make a good case that the committee acted unfairly and unconstitutionally.
A second example: Although splitting counties for redistricting purposes is allowable, the Nebraska Supreme Court has set a high bar for such action. In 1992, the Legislature had to reconvene after the court ruled that lawmakers had acted unconstitutionally a year earlier when they split Madison County between two state legislative districts as part of redistricting. Splitting Madison County, the court said, was unconstitutional in two regards. The Legislature’s action violated Article III, section 5, of the Nebraska Constitution, which states that “county lines shall be followed whenever practicable” during redistricting. In addition, the court said, the Legislature should keep a county whole when it has a population sufficient to constitute a single legislative district.
These considerations apply directly to keeping Douglas County whole as state senators decide how to shrink the 2nd Congressional District by 47,000 residents in order to keep Nebraska’s three U.S. House districts equal in population. The district currently contains all of Douglas County plus western Sarpy County.
On this matter, it’s relevant to look back at the Redistricting Committee debate in 2011 on redrawing the 2nd District. The committee’s Republican majority voted to move Bellevue, Offutt Air Force Base and northeastern Sarpy County out of the district. During the committee’s heated debate on the matter, then-State Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh, a key Republican figure on the committee and former Douglas County election commissioner, called Douglas County the core of the 2nd District. It made sense, Lautenbaugh said, to retain the entirety of Douglas County in the district, The World-Herald reported. “The rest of it is the rest of it,” he said.
Douglas County, in its entirety, is indeed the core of the 2nd District. That was undeniably true in 2011. It remains true now. In September, the Legislature should respect that central fact and keep Douglas County whole in its congressional redistricting.
Secretary of State’s Office. The office, which has shown interest in participating in the redistricting process in some fashion, should follow a rigorous nonpartisan approach.
Mindful of the 2022 session. State senators should realize that if they let their battling over redistricting get too ugly, they will undermine the trust needed in the 2022 session when they will have a host of important issues to address.
Redistricting unavoidably involves partisan sparring, but Nebraska lawmakers can best serve the public interest by embracing transparency. Above all, they must understand the major harm that excessive partisanship would risk for the Legislature and for Nebraska’s public interest.