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Aberdonian Says Anti-Gerrymandering Amendment Too Restrictive; DFP Rebuts

Steve Nemmers from Aberdeen takes to the Sunday paper to tell us that he agrees that gerrymandering is bad but that the Farmers Union proposal to fix it with a constitutional amendment that creates an independent redistricting commission is worse. Let’s read and rebut:

I would like to begin by thanking Mark Remily, Doug Sombke and Cory Heidelberger for providing the full text of the proposed redistricting amendment and the discussions I have had on the topic. I also want to thank the office of the Secretary of State for making a full copy of the state Constitution available [Steve Nemmers, letter to the editor, Aberdeen American News, 2015.10.18].

You’re welcome, Steve! I’m happy to help inform the public.

I agree with those who are proposing the amendment; the gerrymandering of the legislative districts is a problem that should be corrected, and if the Legislature is not willing to do it then it should be put before the voters [Nemmers, 2015.10.18].

The Legislature’s unwillingness to act is a key point. Keep this in mind.

I cannot support the proposed amendment in the current form.

First, the language found in the amendment does not all belong in the Constitution. The Constitution should spell out the concept of what is to be done, but should leave the mechanics of how to do it to the Legislature. One of the reasons cited for the amendment is that the Constitution is ambiguous when it comes to the redistricting process. It should be! With a few exceptions, this level of detail is not found in the Constitution today. This language will make for a rigid, brittle process that will be difficult to adapt to changes or adjusted for unforeseen circumstances, and any change will require another amendment to the Constitution [Nemmers, 2015.10.18].

Hmm… Arizona enacted its independent redistricting commission through its state constitution (Article 4, Part 2, Section 1). The Arizona constitution spells out the mechanics of the independent redistricting process just as the South Dakota IRC amendment would.

Arizonans enacted their recently Supreme-Court-approved IRC by ballot initiative in 2000. Iowans enacted their independent redistricting plan in 1980. In neither state do citizens appear to find the process burdensomely rigid or brittle.

One can find similar detailed provisions in the constitutions of Pennsylvania, California, and ten other states with some form of independent redistricting. Redistricting is a fundamental, definitional, constitutional (as in how do we constitute our legislature?) matter.

Legislators don’t want independent redistricting; they want that power for themselves. As Nemmers grants, when the Legislature won’t act on a matter, voters need to act on it themselves. And if voters only propose an initiated law, or if they propose a general constitutional amendment but leave the mechanics up to the Legislature, self-interested officeholders will find a way to rig the system again in their favor. Far from brittle, the IRC amendment is necessarily robust to withstand legislative sabotage.

Second, the amendment limits participation on the redistricting commission to registered voters of the two largest political parties and independents. I do believe this commission should have a strong representation from independents, but should not exclude smaller recognized parties [Nemmers, 2015.10.18].

Nemmers here reads the IRC amendment wrong. The IRC amendment does not exclude members of smaller parties from the process. Let’s read the relevant text from the IRC amendment:

By January 31 of each year in which the redistricting is required, the board overseeing state elections and procedures shall accept applications from persons who are willing to serve on and are qualified for appointment to the commission. The pool of candidates shall consist of no more than thirty individuals, ten from each of the two largest political parties in South Dakota based on party registration, and ten not registered with either of the two largest political parties in South Dakota.

By February 28 of each year in which the redistricting is required, the board shall establish a commission to provide for the redistricting of state legislative districts. No more than three members of the commission shall be members of the same political party. The commission shall select by majority vote one of its members to serve as chair and one of its members to serve as vice chair [emphasis added; South Dakota Farmers Union, proposed Independent Redistricting Commission ballot measure, approved by Secretary of State Shantel Krebs, 2015.07.17].

Libertarians, Constitutionalists, Socialists… anyone from any party can get a seat on this commission. Nemmers’s second objection is thus invalid.

Third, the amendment attempts to tie the hands of the commission by predetermining that the shape of the districts be in a grid like pattern of equal population across the state [Nemmers, 2015.10.18].

If this provision is hand-tying, it’s done with wet noodles, not irons. The “grid-like pattern” (hexagons! please!) is a starting point, immediately subjected to the following criteria for adjustment:

  1. Districts shall comply with the United States Constitution, the South Dakota Constitution, and federal statutes, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court and other courts with jurisdiction;
  2. Districts shall have equal population to the extent practicable;
  3. Districts shall be geographically compact and contiguous to the extent practicable;
  4. District boundaries shall respect communities of interest to the extent practicable; and
  5. District lines shall use visible geographic features, municipal and county boundaries, and undivided census tracts to the extent practicable [SDFU IRC amendment, 2015.07.17].

Those affirmative criteria properly tie the hands of the IRC to prevent gerrymandering, as does the following prohibition:

Party registration and voting history shall be excluded from the redistricting process. The places of residence of incumbents or candidates shall not be identified or considered [SDFU IRC amendment, 2015.07.17].

The whole point of an independent redistricting commission is to tie legislators’ hands so they can’t rig the map to benefit themselves (enacting this change as a constitutional amendment does that) and to stop the IRC members from slipping into the same bad behavior (the above criteria do that). The grid-like pattern simply tells the IRC how to start its mapping. Knowing that a simple grid won’t do, we must provide the IRC with clear rules that define the fair outcome we seek.

Nemmers suggests that “we reject the version of the redistricting amendment being promoted by the above named group and try again.” None of the three reasons he presents are sufficient reason to go to that trouble. Farmers Union has a good, fair proposal that improves on the status quo and reflects the workable, fair proposals enacted in other states. Nemmers essentially advocates delay for another two years (we don’t have time to put a new initiative on the 2016 ballot) to come up with some as-yet-unspecified plan. But we already have a darn good plan before us, Farmers Union’s IRC plan, with thousands of petition signatures ready to put it to a vote in 2016. Why wait? Let’s sign that petition, put this measure on the ballot, and have this gerrymandering debate in 2016!


  1. Roger Elgersma 2015-10-18 15:41

    Gerrymandering as it is are totally partisan. This is not fair and the extreme problem is when someone is run out of their seat my changing their district. This means that someone decides you lose your job representing people who voted you in and would vote you in again. That is no longer democracy.
    Any system would and should have some priorities. But not party or personal priorities. There should be somewhat homogenous groups. For instance, any city that is smaller than a district should be entirely in one district. All cities should have a minimum number of districts. This would keep most districts mostly urban or mostly rural. Within cities that are larger than one district there should also be homogenous groups. Some would say they would rather have ten percent of the vote in ten different districts so they could influence ten districts representatives rather than have one hundred percent of one district and virtually rule their representative. You can not put all big farmers in one group and all small farmers in another group. Some groups will inherently be spread over a number of districts no matter what you do.
    Iowa has a totally not political person running the office that does redistricting and they have almost no problems. It is not easy to find that non political of a person who still wants the job. If we agree on the priorities which are not partisan and then let the computer do it, will result in the least blaming of the other guys. Should also have minimal problems.

  2. grudznick 2015-10-18 16:08

    This is as it should be. The whiners who didn’t get their way the first time should not get a second stab at it and annoy everybody with the same whining a second time.


  3. 96Tears 2015-10-18 16:39

    Mr. Nemmers’ perceived arguments triangulate with the tactics used by caveman Al Novstrup in tearing away at the redistricting proposal. The trick is called Letting the Perfect Become the Enemy of the Good. Cory did a very good job of ripping away the ruse Mr. Nemmers brings to the discussion, but get ready to see a lot more of this kind of deliberate undermining of a solution to a severe problem.

    Cory points out early that the Legislature will not lift a finger to solve the problem in Pierre. He has proof. Representative Bill Thompson, D-Sioux Falls, carried this legislation for a number of sessions only to see it shut down in committee again and again. Pierre has no intention to solve problems when the maladies benefit the corrupt inner circle of pals who control power in South Dakota.

    This is why Mr. Nemmers should be culled from the discussion as a saboteur. Same with negaNovstrup and his ilk. As long as these rascals gnaw away at good ideas and work to circumvent the will of the people, you know you have a good idea worth fighting for.

    Mark Remily and Doug Sombke, keep the plow in the ground, boys! Don’t get distracted by the naybobs of negativity.

  4. mike from iowa 2015-10-18 18:45

    I’m guessing Nemmers is a wingnut. Whatever happened to wingnuts and strict constructionism? Now they want a living,breathing document they can manipulate at will?

  5. Douglas Wiken 2015-10-18 19:08

    The good enough as the enemy of the perfect is a phrase I read first in computer magazine BYTE. Some software was just good enough to prevent development of something better.

    In politics, it is often the impossible perfect that is the forever enemy of the working good enough process. If this redistricting proposal does not work as hoped, it can be amended to be good as needs to be.

    I don’t know Nemmers, but I suspect opposition to detailed constitutional provisions are objectionable to constitutional scholars because we have a US constitution that is remarkable terse for what it has accomplished and for as long as it has lasted.

    Redistricting would not need to be a part of the state constitution if the current system were not so morally and intellectually corrupt. As a state law, it would be twisted and tortured until it served no purpose. It would become like an environmental agency with no devices to measure stench from hog and cattle factories or to test water for petroleum solvents.

  6. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-19 06:15

    Roger, right now, I believe the legislative map conforms to your rule about no city with less than the population of the district threshold should be divided across districts. In 2011, the proper population of a district was roughly 23,300. Only three cities—SF, RC, and Aberdeen—were larger than that, and only those three cities are divided across districts.

    In 2020, our projected state population will be 890,000. The target district population would 25,400. Putting current populations on the back of the envelope and calculating growth rates, SF, RC, and Aberdeen will still be the only cities above that threshold. Brookings will be close, just cracking 25,000, but still under the district target.

    I wonder: should we apply the same rule to counties? No county gets split unless its population is greater than the target district population? That would split Minnehaha, Pennington, Brown, Brookings, Codington, Meade, and Lawrence—seven counties divided, all the rest integral. The current map leaves Lawrence whole as District 31. The current map unnecessarily splits Butte, Spink, and Bon Homme counties.

  7. caheidelberger Post author | 2015-10-19 06:16

    No need to cull Mr. Nemmers, 96. He opened his letter politely enough. I’ll take him at his word and assume that, provided this correction, he’ll at least cede these arguments and look for others, which I will happily analyze when he offers them.

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