By Scott Smith
You won’t find former State Rep. Bill Ruppel among the fans of the proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting, even if advocates sent out a letter with his name on it.
The amendment, House Joint Resolution 1, was one of 23 bills killed Tuesday by the Democrat walkout, but it isn’t one Ruppel, a nine-term Republican from North Manchester, will lament.
That’s because the amendment would have merely given the Indiana General Assembly the option of ceding redistricting power to an independent commission.
“See, they promised to do this, and now they’re weaseling out,” Ruppel said of his former colleagues in the House. “We’re going to run a constitutional question to put a ‘may’ in the constitution? It’s worthless.”
Outspokenness, according to Ruppel, is one of the reasons he didn’t get a 10th term in the Legislature.
Another is his refusal to keep quiet about some of the back-room machinations that happen every 10 years when the majority party in the General Assembly sits down to do redistricting.
“It’s been done this way because it’s the good old boy network,” Ruppel said Wednesday at a redistricting discussion hosted by the League of Women Voters of Howard County. “They do it this way so they can stay in control longer.”
A co-chair of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, a non-partisan group aimed at monitoring and advocating fairness in the redistricting process, Ruppel will host public meetings across the state next month.
The closest meeting will be March 10 in Indianapolis, at a site yet to be determined. The information will be available as it arrives through the website of the League of Women Voters of Indiana, http://lwvin.org
Ruppel’s advice to voters: Call your state legislator, and tell them you want the new district lines drawn fairly, with no gerrymandering, and with the map-making done out in the open.
The way it’s done currently, Ruppel said, involves legislators going outside the Statehouse, to another building in downtown Indianapolis.
“That way, they can say it wasn’t done on state time,” he said.
One of the primary spoils that goes to the political victors, redistricting has been a controversial subject since well before the term “gerrymandering” was coined in the 19th century.
To advocates of an independent redistricting commission, such as the League of Women Voters, Common Cause Indiana and the AARP, say redistricting is too often the way “politicians choose their voters,” rather than voters choosing their politicians.
In Indiana, Ruppel said, even the most fair maps would have to represent the fact that around 55 percent of voters are Republicans, and that around 58 percent of primary voters are Republicans.
So making maps more fair won’t simply mean trying to even out the numbers of Democrats and Republicans in each district, he said.
Instead, by making maps that recognize and respect the ideals of compactness, communities of interest and competitiveness, more voters can have more choices at the polls — and feel enfranchised again.
Compactness means drawing lines that include the required numbers of residents in the smallest possible area, so lines don’t meander along voter tendencies, but instead tend to follow county and township boundaries.
And communities of interest should stay together, so the lines that split so many communities in two or three parts are erased. That also refers to federal fair-voting laws, which bar officials from splitting up ethnic and racial voting blocs, advocates say.
The difficulty for advocates in Indiana is that the clock is ticking. There is an April 29 deadline for redrawing the maps, and Ruppel said he suspects the Republicans have already drawn the maps to strengthen their political hand.
After all, that’s what the Democrats did 10 years ago, when they were the majority.
Part of the political trick of putting forward HJR1, Ruppel said, was so voters would forget the Legislature had the power, as soon as the session started, to change the law and immediately set up an independent redistricting commission.
“They don’t need to wait for HJR1, but they’re not going to [set up a commission], because it’s payback,” he said.