The strongest word we can find to describe our reaction to the proposed Minneapolis City Charter amendment is "ambivalent."
The proposal, which would require the City Charter Commission to adjust the city’s wards and precincts after each U.S. Census, would take that role away from a specially-appointed commission that is made up largely of political party representatives.
The idea is to have the political parties out of the process, which makes sense to us. The Charter Commission, however, is appointed by the chief judge of Hennepin County District Court. While this is a better situation than handing the job over to the political parties, judges are not, by virtue of their position, immune to political pressure. For example, if they want to keep their jobs, they have to run for election and re-election. Even though judicial elections are non-partisan, they have to raise money and campaign, which can produce favors that are expected to be returned. In short, they have to play the game for which one of them is choosing the referees...or, to be more accurate, choosing the people who design the playing field. This is not intended to suggest that the current or any former chief judge is anything less than a model of integrity. It is meant to suggest that the proposed new system will not necessarily lead us away from the problems it is supposedly designed to solve.
So, even though there’s a better chance that the redistricting process will be handled well under the proposed system, does it really make sense to make a change that won’t necessarily solve the current problems and might introduce new problems? We’re not sure.
Why does it matter? It matters because the authority to draw the city’s ward boundaries is, simply put, an extreme amount of raw power.
Most visibly, it’s the power to decide whether a community that’s concentrated in a geographic area can use its numbers to elect candidates it finds favorable; or whether boundary lines will be drawn to divide that community into different districts, each of which has a large majority that’s not part of that community.
They also have the power to decide, for redistricting purposes, what constitutes a community. Is it race/ethnicity? Economic status? Education level? Voting record? Age? The redistricting process has the potential to define a community, put it on the map, and give it or deprive it of representation.
The people who want to influence those decisions, if they’re smart, find a way to lobby the people who have the power. And you can be sure that any outstanding favors will be called in.
Is it possible for the process of building the political playing field to be non-political? We’re not sure. But it would help. And we’re not prepared to tell the city folks exactly how they should do it, although it’s tempting to suggest that they take our Census information to a distant state (or perhaps a distant country) and have the whole matter decided by people who have no interest in local politics, with severe penalties (on the order of jury tampering) for any locals who try to influence the process.
With potential solutions of this magnitude, the thought of giving the process over to the City Charter Commission makes us feel...well...ambivalent. Neither a yes vote nor a no vote will solve the redistricting problem.
Originally published in the October 6, 2010 edition of Northeaster