The League of Women Voters invited four area political practitioners—Rep. Susan Wismer (D-1/Britton), Farmers Union president Doug Sombke, longtime legislator and current candidate H. Paul Dennert, and me—to respond to three key questions about redistricting in South Dakota.
Forum host and League of Women Voters president Caitlin Collier started with a challenging political question: If my party benefits from the current redistricting system, why would I want to change it?
- Rep. Susan Wismer: Any “serious student of democracy” is “interested in fair representation.”
- Doug Sombke said he led the unsuccessful 2016 ballot measure drive to create an independent redistricting commission with Amendment T because he shared Rep. Wismer’s interest in putting representation of the people above representation of one party or another.
- Paul Dennert said sparing candidates the kind of travel he has to do in gerrymandered District 1 (over 200 miles round trip for him to travel from rural Brown County all the way over to visit some District 1 constituents in eastern Roberts County).
- CAH: While I acknowledged how much I would relish the chance to help Governor Sutton gerrymander Republicans into the ditch in 2021, I will instead, like Rep. Wismer, stand by principle: elections and election maps should be fair. Legislators shouldn’t be able to put their thumbs on the scale and draw maps in their favor.
- CAH: No. If areas losing population want to keep their seats in the Legislature, we either need to change the rules of population-based redistricting or make more babies in Eureka, Bison, and Philip, and Woonsocket.
- Dennert suggested one wild idea: maybe we need to reconfigure one Legislative chamber to take one representative from each county. (Dennert wasn’t advocating the idea, just offering it as a potential response to the rural concern.
- Sombke expressed interest in Dr. Fouberg’s proposal to redistrict with an eye toward economic communities. However, such a new perspective might also require moving away from county management of elections and toward a model more like how South Dakota’s school boards are set up.
- Rep. Wismer agreed with my basic principle: we can’t preserve rural representation if there are fewer rural people. Rep. Wismer acknowledged that the current practice of keeping bigger towns like Watertown and Brookings together in districts and creating mostly rural districts from their surroundings is one small way that we boost rural representation. Rep. Wismer thirded Fouberg’s economic/trade area approach to redistricting and reminded us of the idea of single-member House districts.
- Dr. Fouberg chimed in at this point to provoke our brains with this thought: do away with districts and hold statewide elections to give each party proportional representation, à la Canada.
Collier’s third question: How would the results of an independent redistricting commission like Sombke proposed and voters rejected in 2016 differ from the results of the current system in which the majority party in the Legislature draws the boundaries?
- Rep. Wismer: the current system in 2011 drew many Democrats out of their districts. Iowa has an independent redistricting commission, but the Republican Legislature keeps killing the idea here.
- Sombke: Political scientists like Dr. Fouberg drawing the map would produce different results from allowing the powers that be to draw the map. An independent redistricting commission in South Dakota would face the constraints of maintaining racial equity for reservation populations that don’t affect Iowa’s redistricting to the same degree. Rural taxation also complicates the issue.
- Dennert suggested we consider school districts as a basis for representation. He also noted that the present system, which has divided Brown County into three districts, has somehow left the biggest agricultural producing county in the state with only one working farmer, his grandson Drew, among its nine legislators. (And even Drew lives here in town.) Paul said there was no good reason for the powers that be to draw Districts 1 and 2 to be over 100 miles long. Paul also told a story about some legislator offering to finagle Paul a better spot in that year’s map in return for some political promise. Obviously, such finagling wouldn’t happen on an independent redistricting commission.
- CAH: I acknowledged that an independent commission would labor under the same basic constraints of population and race that Dr. Fouberg identified. But I reiterated that an independent commission takes incumbents’ thumbs off the scale (or, in this case, off the crayons).
The League of Women Voters asks good questions. I think we on the panel gave pretty good answers.
Stay tuned: in my final post on last night’s forum, I summarize audience questions and Susan Wismer’s effective cleaning of Al Novstrup’s smarmy clock.