Senators propose redistricting plans: Legislative committee or independent commission?
Redrawing political boundaries will be a new experience for 48 of Nebraska’s 49 state senators when the Legislature tackles the task in two short years.
The only lawmaker who was in the Legislature during the last redistricting process, in 2011, was Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop, who returned to the body after sitting out four years because of term limits. He’ll be around in 2021, but Sen. Ernie Chambers, who has also been through the process, will be out because of term limits.
The lack of experience, as well as a tendency for Nebraska to change how it approaches redistricting each decade, has led to several attempts to codify best practices into law.
This year, a pair of Omaha lawmakers have offered plans that would create greater statutory clarity for the 2021 redistricting and beyond, providing the Legislature a divergent set of options to pursue.
The first is Sen. Sara Howard’s plan (LB466), which would keep the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee intact while standing up more guidelines and greater opportunities for public feedback.
“Nebraska has never redistricted in the same way twice,” Howard told the Executive Board on Thursday. “I think that our job is to make sure future Legislatures have some certainty in how we’re going to do something as important as redistricting.”
Her proposal requires the Office of Legislative Research to use state-issued computer software to create maps of equal population that do not consider political affiliation, prior voting data, and use only demographic information provided through the Census to propose contiguous districts that give deference to county and municipal lines.
Once drafted, the maps would go through public hearings in each of Nebraska’s three congressional districts before being taken up by the Legislature for consideration.
The second plan (LB253), by Sen. John McCollister, would create an Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Committee — the same plan sponsored in 2016 by then-Sens. Heath Mello of Omaha and John Murante of Gretna.
Gov. Pete Ricketts vetoed the Mello-Murante plan, which passed final reading 29-15, citing concerns that it removed the redistricting plan from the Legislature’s control.
McCollister said the six-member committee, which would include two people from each of Nebraska’s three congressional districts and be limited to three members total from each political party, would “have a short lifespan” and be advisory in nature only.
Like in Howard’s proposal, McCollister’s bill calls for the maps to be drawn in the Office of Legislative Research, reflecting districts of equal population, that are compact, contiguous and follow the boundaries of counties, cities, villages and subdivisions, while creating communities of common interest without considering political party affiliation or how voters were registered in previous elections, and comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Testifiers expressed support for either option, and voiced hope the Executive Board would advance both for debate by the full Legislature.
John Else, a retired professor from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, told the committee that both plans reinforced the idea that “voters choose their representatives” and not the other way around.
Common Cause Nebraska executive director Gavin Geis said advancing both bills out of committee would give the Legislature ample opportunity to discuss both and choose the best option for the state, although he added that McCollister’s bill included certain provisions that would prevent diluting legislative districts through “cracking” or “packing.”
Danielle Conrad, the executive director of ACLU of Nebraska and a former state senator who served on the last redistricting committee, said each bill was focused on transparency, taking partisanship out of the process, and reinforcing voting rights.
And Brad Christian-Sallis, voting rights policy organizer for Civic Nebraska, said Howard’s plan moved toward “a more just form of redistricting” with public input and protections against partisan influence, while McCollister’s bill afforded more opportunities for Nebraskans to have input.
There were some questions about how members would be chosen to the independent committee under McCollister’s plan, however.
Speaker Jim Scheer said as more Nebraskans register as nonpartisan or independent voters, they might have the numbers to be named to the committee.
The vice chair of the Libertarian Party of Nebraska, Matt Maly, echoed Scheer, saying that because McCollister’s bill referenced the two political parties receiving the most votes in the last statewide election, a large segment of Nebraskans would be excluded from the process.
Maly said the Legislature wasn’t driven by political parties and that senators had “fairly equal say” in all matters. Just as how Libertarian, nonpartisan or independent Nebraskans would be excluded from the committee, so too would senators who identify themselves in those terms.
Fixing that snag would be easy, Maly said, by adjusting the language to open up the committee to anyone not in the highest polling political party, rather than the highest and the second-highest.
Although the Executive Board took no action Thursday, both Howard and McCollister said there was an urgency to the Legislature defining a redistricting process this year.
Howard said former lawmakers have warned that the 2021 redistricting could be “awful” without a process set in statute.
“Our nonpartisan Legislature functions best when we take politics out of it,” she said.
McCollister added that any plan — he suggested the best parts of both could be combined into a single bill — should be adopted before the 2020 election cycle in order to keep the nonpartisan nature of the proposals intact.
“We don’t want to wait until 2020, when it’s a political year,” he said. “That complicates our life considerably so.”