The ballot measures keep coming—democracy rocks!
Attorney General Marty Jackley yesterday released the text of a proposed constitutional amendment to end gerrymandering. This initiated measure, sponsored by Doug Sombke on behalf of the South Dakota Farmers Union, would create an independent redistricting commission to draw South Dakota’s Legislative district boundaries.
The proposed amendment replaces Article 3 Section 5 of South Dakota’s constitution with the following provisions for forming the independent redistricting commission (IRC):
- The state Board of Elections picks nine South Dakotans to serve on the IRC.
- No more than three members of the commission can be members of the same political party. The intent appears to be to have three Republicans, three Democrats, and three Independents; however the text appears to leave open the possibility that the Board of Elections could select fewer main-party members and more Indies and/or minor party members.
- Each commission member must have maintained the same party registration status for at least three years prior to appointment to the IRC.
- No one who has been “appointed to, or elected to, any state public office or political party office” in the three years prior to appointment may serve on the IRC.
- No one who serves on the IRC may be “appointed to, or elected to, any state public office or political party office” for three years after appointment.
The amendment charges the independent redistricting commission with drawing “districts of equal population in a grid-like pattern across the state.” Of course, no square grid would fairly divide South Dakota’s people into balanced Legislative districts. Thus, the amendment proposes the following criteria for “adjustments” in district geometry:
- Follow state and federal law and court rulings (i.e., districts still must respect the Voting Rights Act and not dilute the voting power our Lakota neighbors and other minority groups).
- Keep population roughly equal.
- Make districts compact and contiguous.
- Draw boundaries that respect “communities of interest” (again, protect Indian voters, and more!).
- Draw boundaries along “visible geographic features, municipal and county boundaries, and undivided census tracts to the extent practicable.”
The amendment prohibits the consideration of any information about party registration and voting history from the redistricting process. The public and the Legislature get thirty days to comment on the IRC’s draft map, but the IRC alone draws the final map.
Under current law, the South Dakota Supreme Court steps in to draw the district map if the Legislature can’t pass a map. Under this amendment, failure is not an option: the amendment strikes the Supreme Court back-up plan and invests the IRC with sole authority over the map.
And for some real fun, if voters want to end gerrymandering, they don’t have to wait until the next Census. The amendment keeps decennial redistricting, just like under current practice, but it convenes the IRC to draw a new map in 2017, effective for the 2018 and 2020 elections, then redraws in 2021 to settle back to the post-Census groove.
South Dakota Democrats often cite redistricting as a tool they could use to get back some seats in the Legislature. Bob Mercer poo-poos that possibility, saying no map, independently drawn or otherwise, can make as much difference for Dems as restoring voter registration counts and “running candidates who are attractive, willing to work hard, can raise sufficient money and have politically acceptable ideas.”
In terms of politically acceptable ideas, the independent redistricting commission would make a good companion to Referred Law 19 and Referred Law 20 on the 2016 ballot. Referred Law 19 challenges the Legislature’s effort to protect incumbents from challengers on the ballot. Referred Law 20 challenges the Legislature’s effort to undermine ballot initiatives. The IRC amendment challenges the Legislature’s effort to choose their voters and make elections less competitive. Whether smart Democratic candidates can use these three issues to boost their electoral fortunes is an open question, but all three of these measures offer voters of all parties a chance to protect their rights and promote democracy.
Constitutional amendments require 27,741 signatures by November 9 of this year to make the 2016 ballot. That’s twice as many signatures as initiated and referred laws. Farmers Union, let’s get to work and end gerrymandering!
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By the way, the Attorney General’s explanation of the IRC initiative is remarkably “objective, clear, and simple.” Rather than speculating about the cost of creating a new commission or trying to dig up some concern about court challenges (and you know his gerrymandering Republican friends want to talk about such things), AG Jackley simply summarizes the proposal and leaves it to voters to decide.