The Aberdeen Chamber of Commerce Governmental Affairs Committee presented a lunchtime speech today by Dr. Kenneth Blanchard, political science professor at Northern State University, on redistricting. Dr. Blanchard chose a timely topic, given the circulation of an initiative petition seeking to create an independent redistricting committee in South Dakota.
The gist of Dr. Blanchard’s 27-minute speech (most of which I captured on video below—enjoy!) was that no redistricting reform promises great gains for any political party or solid insulation from partisan scheming. Dr. Blanchard fought off his conservative suspicion of reform just enough to avoid recommending that we vote against the pending anti-gerrymandering proposal. He acknowledged that the South Dakota Legislature could stand to have better partisan balance to avoid falling into the sort of one-party corruption he saw while growing up in Democrat-dominated Arkansas. However, he told South Dakota Democrats pinning their hopes for such balance on an independent redistricting commission that they would do better to focus on recruiting candidates and strengthening their party.
Novstrup: Proposal Vulnerable to GOP Sabotage!
Dr. Blanchard said that the intended balance of party representation in the redistricting proposal is reasonable, in that a panel equally balanced among Republicans, Democrats, and Independents would check shenanigans. However, during the Q&A after Dr. Blanchard’s speech, Rep. Al Novstrup (R-3/Aberdeen) questioned whether the ballot measure as written would achieve partisan balance. He noted (as I did on first reading of the proposal in July) that the exact text of the measure says, “No more than three members of the commission shall be members of the same political party.” Rep. Novstrup contended that the Board of Elections, which by its statutory composition is likely to consist of a majority of Republicans, could appoint three Republicans, no Democrats, and six right-leaning Independents. Rep. Novstrup said the specific wording of the initiative could give Republicans an even firmer grip on the redistricting process.
Rep. Novstrup has a clever argument, but he ignores the criteria built into the initiative, specifically the requirement that the IRC start its map-drawing by “creating districts of equal population in a grid-like pattern across the state”and the prohibition on adjusting that grid-like pattern by considering party registration, voting history, or “places of residence of incumbents or candidates.” Even if the Board of Elections excludes one party from the IRC, the IRC would lack the information it would need to rig the map the way Rep. Novstrup and his colleagues can under the current rules.
Of Machines and Men
I asked Dr. Blanchard whether he thought a purely algorithmic method of drawing legislative districts, like the optimally compact hexagonal scheme designed by Brian Olson of bdistricting.com, could produce a more fair election map. Cinephile Dr. Blanchard referenced Colossus: The Forbin Project, to show he’s as suspicious of machines as he is of reform.
City councilman Clint Rux noted that Aberdeen has a committee separate from the council itself draw the districts for city elections then submit that map to the council for a straight up-or-down vote. Dr. Blanchard said he is open to such a model for the state but believes that the Legislature should maintain some control over elections.
Watch the bulk of Dr. Blanchard’s speech: