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Session 2001: Redistricting
By Michael Khoo
December 27, 2000
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Remember your census form? Those numbers and the data that follow will lay the groundwork for a once-in-a-decade political battle. State lawmakers will examine hundreds of thousands of census blocks next year - all part of redrawing legislative and congressional boundaries to match shifting populations.

Drawing a map is the easy part, but since the new districts will affect the balance of political power until 2010, drawing a map that all parties can accept may take years.

THE PRINCIPLE OF REDISTRICTING is simple and elegant: Every legislative district ought to contain roughly the same number of people. Likewise for U.S. congressional districts. But with different parts of the state expanding or contracting at different rates, old political boundaries can soon become outdated. This year's decennial census gives lawmakers a chance to correct for population changes, a process enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. "That's just the first step because you can create districts that are one-person, one-vote that have very different configurations from one and other, " says Atty. John French, who represented Democratic interests during the last redistricting fight in the early '90s. "The different political parties and even factions within parties would like to organize districts in such a way as to maximize the number of legislators that their faction gets out of the districts. And that's what the dispute is always about."

The process in the '90s was unique, perhaps, for then-governor Arne Carlson's failure to veto the DFL-dominated state Legislature's new redistricting map in a timely fashion. The veto came a day late and was thrown out. The struggle continued in the courts where the plan was ultimately upheld.

Duane Benson, the Republican Senate Minority Leader at the time, says DFLers drew the map to protect Democratic incumbents.

"A lot of Republicans said, 'We're doomed, because these are drawn up in such a way that Democrats will always have an advantage. They'll have a majority in most of the districts largely by who's brought in and who's left out.' That did have an impact, particularly on the Senate where you have longer terms," Benson said.

Some Republicans argue that DFL dominance in the Senate is a direct by-product of the 1990 redistricting. And they say Republicans would have taken the House sooner if the map had been fairer. But French says no legal principles were violated last time around.

"For a person to say if we'd drawn the lines differently it might have produced more Republican seats and fewer Democratic seats, that is possible," says French, who denies any legal principles were violated.

This year, Republicans will have a seat at the table, and they've got their eyes on the Twin Cities fast-growing suburban ring. State Demographer Tom Gillaspy says the state's overall population increased 10 percent in the past decade. That's roughly the national average, meaning Minnesota will likely see no change in its number of U.S. representatives.

But Gillaspy says communities like Woodbury are seeing growth two or three times the statewide average. Meanwhile, rural areas and the urban core haven't kept pace, or in some cases, are slipping behind.

"People who moved in were all roughly the same age, had children of approximately the same age, and as the children grow up and leave, households of four or five people become households of two people, and then households of two people become a household of one," says Gillaspy.

House Speaker Steve Sviggum sees gold - or at least Republicans - in the suburbs.

"There's probably going to be a shift of four, maybe five seats from the core cities and from the Iron Range to suburbs, which generally would say from Democratic-controlled strongholds to at least areas that Republicans would be competitive in," Sviggum says.

But Senate Majority Leader Roger Moe says suburban growth doesn't favor any party in particular. Moe says the DFL agenda is broad enough to generate statewide support.

"Making sure that we have good public education, making sure that we have livable communities, that our streets are safe, that we protect our environment and enhance those opportunities, that we have economic growth and opportunities to advance and achieve and be contributing members of our society - that's exactly our agenda," says Moe. "I have no concern whatsoever as it relates to where the growth is. We think we can be competitive in those areas."

The Legislature will need to draw two maps - one for the state's 134 legislative districts and another for the state's eight congressional seats. And potential conflicts are already emerging. Republicans, for example, may try to merge Minneapolis and St. Paul into one congressional district, making room for another in the suburbs. DFLers will likely oppose that move as it would pit Democrats Martin Sabo and Betty McCollum against each other in the next election. Throw into the pot one governor from the Independence Party and the wrinkles multiply.

Dean Barkley, who directs Gov. Ventura's redistricting effort, says the governor wants to replace so-called "safe seats" with competitive ones. "It promotes more enthusiasm; it gives people more of a reason to participate in campaigns; it gives more people a reason to run for election if they think they've got a legitimate chance of winning. I think you get a better quality of candidate. There's a lot of positive we think that'll come from that," says Barkley.

Barkley says the criterion of competition hasn't been fully developed, but it would likely mean examining previous voting trends and drawing districts that include a mix of political persuasions. But Sviggum says such a plan could undermine other criteria, such as compact districts and respect for natural boundaries.

"Are you going to take a thin line from Chisholm over to Brainerd, on a very, very thin line, to make it competitive? And then another very thin line from Hibbing , down Cambridge to make that competitive?" Sviggum asks. "I think that that criteria is a little more difficult to put into a map than it is just to speak to from a rhetoric standpoint."

Barkley has invited the DFL, Republican, Independence and Green Parties, along with several citizens' groups, to participate in a redistricting roundtable. He says he hopes their work will facilitate a solution immune to lawsuits. But precedent doesn't offer much hope. Each redistricting since 1950 has attracted legal challenges - sometimes before a map had even been drawn.

Michael Khoo covers politics for Minnesota Public Radio. Reach him via e-mail at