INDIANAPOLIS – Republicans forced their redistricting plan for congressional and legislative seats through the Indiana House on Thursday, casting aside objections that the new maps lock in an excessive partisan advantage for the GOP for another decade.
House members voted 67-31 largely on party lines to endorse the plan, sending it to the state Senate for expected final approval next week.
The new districts would take effect next year and be in place through the 2030 elections.
Political analysts say the new maps protect Republicans' dominance that has given them a 7-2 majority of Indiana's U.S. House seats and commanding majorities in the state Legislature, exceeding their typical 56% of the statewide vote.
Republicans maintain they've followed all federal and state laws for the once-a-decade redrawing of election districts to match population changes recorded by the census while avoiding splitting counties and cities between multiple districts as much as possible.
Democrats argued the Republicans were using gerrymandering – drawing districts to favor a particular party – to cement supermajorities in the Legislature, giving them “absolute power.”
The state Senate now has a 39-11 Republican supermajority, which with the 71-29 GOP House control, allows Republicans in both chambers to approve proposals without any Democrats being present.
Democrats pointed to the new congressional map that shifts the northern tier of Democratic-leaning Indianapolis from the 5th District that Republican Rep. Victora Spartz narrowly won last year and giving it more GOP-friendly rural areas north of the city. That move was made after the district had trended over the past decade from a Republican stronghold to the most politically competitive in the state.
“The decision was made, 'Well we've got to stamp that out. We can't have that happening,'” said Democratic Rep. Matt Pierce of Bloomington.
Republican House elections committee Chairman Tim Wesco of Osceola said many of those who testified at public hearings emphasized their desire for districts that limited the splitting up of cities and counties. Wesco credited the leader of the House Republican redistricting work, Rep. Greg Steuerwald of Avon, for making “maps as compact and, I dare say, as beautiful as possible.”
“The truth is people don't want districts that look like salamanders,” Wesco said.
Republicans on Wednesday rejected a proposal from Democrats to use a map for the 100 state House districts that was submitted by a resident to the unofficial Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission organized by voting-rights groups. Democrats said that map would better reflect the state's political leanings by resulting in an expected 59-41 Republican majority.
Democrats spoke against the fast-track approval of the Republican redistricting plan, which could be completed on Oct. 1. That would be 17 days after the first of the proposed maps were released to the public and make Indiana one of the first states to complete redistricting work.
“We need to reconsider this rushed timeline and take your maps out around the state for public review,” said Democratic Rep. Vernon Smith of Gary. “Instead of only considering your plan, one plan drawn behind closed doors by one party, give proper consideration to the maps the citizens redistricting commission and others have proposed.”
Republicans have used the full legislative supermajorities they've held since the 2012 elections to advance issues such as expanding state funding of vouchers for students attending private schools, toughening anti-abortion laws and approving a contentious religious objections law in 2015.
The Republican plan for new state Senate districts was just released Tuesday, with analysts projecting it would give the GOP at least its current 39-11 majority. The Senate elections committee will hold a public hearing Monday.
Pierce called the proposed Senate map the “king of the gerrymander.”
“How much is enough?” Pierce said. “You get the sense that they have this feeling there's a birthright that the minority party in the Senate should never have more than single digits for seats.”