Julia Vaughn believes redistricting reform has a real chance of passing in the coming session of the Indiana General Assembly.
Vaughn is the policy director for Common Cause Indiana, and she has been traveling the state to build support for a more open and fair process.
“The growth in grassroots support has been tremendous,” she said.
The effort has some powerful allies, including House Speaker Brian Bosma (R-Indianapolis).
“He’s been one of the most long-term supporters, and we’re grateful for that,” she said.
Reform advocates will be pushing for passage of Senate Bill 159 sponsored by Republicans John Ruckelshaus of Indianapolis and Mike Bohacek of Michiana Shores. The bill is similar to the one that failed to get out of committee during last year’s session.
“We think it’s a better bill,” Vaughn said. “It addresses the questions that were raised with last year’s bill.”
The measure would create a nine-member commission made up of a Republican and a Democrat from both the House and Senate, along with five members of the public selected by a committee of university presidents. Maps drawn by the commission would then be subject to approval by the General Assembly.
Vaughn insists this is not a partisan issue. Though the Democrats came out on the short end of the last redistricting effort, they aren’t exactly innocent bystanders. Ruckelshaus
felt the pain of gerrymandering in the early 1990s when he was a first-term member of the Indiana House and Democrats stuck him in a district with another incumbent from his own party.
Vaughn is hoping her effort might get some help from the U.S. Supreme Court, which is now considering a case challenging the maps drawn by Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin. Democrats claim the maps were so out of balance as to be unconstitutional.
Vaughn said attorneys were expecting a ruling in February, right in the middle of this year’s legislative session. Should the court rule the Wisconsin maps unconstitutional, she said, that would have a significant impact not just in Wisconsin, but across the country.
“It would be a whole new ballgame,” she said.
Critics question the value of the reform effort. They note Indiana has frequently been controlled by the Republicans and that taking politics out of the process won’t really change that. Vaughn says changing the partisan balance isn’t the goal.
“This isn’t going to turn a red state blue,” she said. “What we’re proposing is a more open, more inclusive process.”
She does argue, though, that allowing either party to gain too much control isn’t good for the average citizen.
“That’s why you have a situation like 2014 when Indiana had the lowest turnout in the country,” she said. “When people don’t feel like they have a voice, they tune out.”
Vaughn acknowledges the effort will face challenges.
“We’re under no illusion that this will be a walk in the park,” she said.
One obstacle will be time. This will be a short session, meaning lawmakers will have just 30 working days to complete their business. Of course, every session has its obstacles. In the last session, lawmakers faced the task of putting together a two-year budget.
“That’s one of the reasons our bill ran into trouble,” she said. “The leadership had a budget to push through, and if they had to choose between redistricting and a budget, the budget naturally won.”
Should the effort fail again this year, there still will be time to act. The next census is due in 2020, and redistricting will take place the following year.
Vaughn sees success on the horizon.
“We’re certainly within spitting distance,” she said.