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Panel Discussion: South Dakota Redistricting Process Needs Reform

Following Dr. Erin Fouberg's (standing, left) lecture, Rep. Susan Wismer, Doug Sombke, H. Paul Dennert, and Cory Allen Heidelberger took questions on South Dakota's redistricting process. Photo by Betty Sheldon, posted to Facebook, 2018.10.02.
Following Dr. Erin Fouberg’s (standing, left) lecture, Rep. Susan Wismer, Doug Sombke, H. Paul Dennert, and Cory Allen Heidelberger took questions on South Dakota’s redistricting process. Photo by Betty Sheldon, 2018.10.02.

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.

Collier then posed a question about whether any redistricting scheme could preserve fair representation for rural areas amidst the strong population shift toward South Dakota’s urban areas.

  • 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.


  1. Debbo 2018-10-03

    I’m looking forward to hearing all about Rep. Wismer and Al’s smarmy clock. He is indeed very smarmy, with his wimpy poor-me-Cory-is-picking-on-me-by-telling-the-truth. But first, I have a couple questions and a compliment, in reverse order.

    Thanks so much for sharing this with us. Fair district creation is critical to a functional democracy and one of the biggest problems we have now across the USA, except in states with independent commissions to draw the lines. The best way I’ve heard to characterize the evils of gerrymandering is this: “Voters should pick their legislators, not the inverse.”

    It sounds very interesting with excellent questions. Kudos to the LOWV for creating this opportunity for citizens.

    My first question is about the number of legislators. How many school districts are there? That could actually be a useful geographic area if the numbers aren’t too high.

    Second, I believe Paul Dennett said,” Rural taxation also complicates the issue.” How?

    If my questions have been answered elsewhere, please ignore them. Thanks again.

  2. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2018-10-04

    The League of Women Voters is doing the public a great service by organizing these forums around the state.

    To Debbo’s Question #1: there are 149 school districts. Selecting one representative from each school district would be problematic in that (a) it would expand the size of our Legislature and (b) it would mean Eureka and Sioux Falls would each have one representative, violating our population-based apportionment. (See the SD school district map here.)

    But I think when Paul and Doug mentioned school districts as a basis for representation, they were referring more to the concept of districts drawn to reflect community coherence independent of other arbitrary political boundaries. School districts are like Dr. Fouberg’s proposed economic-interest/”grocery shopping” zones: the Groton school district, where Sombke lives, extends into three counties and three Legislative districts. The Aberdeen shopping zone reaches into at least nine South Dakota counties, not to mention Ellendale and other North Dakota communities. I’d actually love to see the map Dr. Fouberg and her colleagues could come up with of South Dakota’s economic hubs and their regions of dominance (hubbiness?).

    Paul and Doug’s conceptual suggestion also has a practical side: the desire to keep counties integral in Legislative districts also has to do with keeping ballot distribution and counting less complicated. When Lawrence County can be one whole Legislative district, the Lawrence County auditor only needs one set of ballots. Redrawing districts to reflect communities of interest that ignore county lines mean that more county election officials will be dealing with multiple ballots.

    Of course, if we’re worried about the complexity of ballot handling, that worry would disappear with Dr. Fouberg’s suggestion of statewide proportional representation. Imagine if, instead of 35 different Senate ballots and 37 different House ballots (don’t forget our four single-member districts!), we had one Legislative ballot that asked voters to select their representation: “For the Senate, which party do you want to represent you: Democratic, Republican, Libertarian, Constitution, or independent?” Now that I think about it, offering people that party choice could result in independents getting a whole lot of seats.

    To Debbo’s second question: my fellow panelists didn’t develop the rural taxation issue deeply, but the idea was that if rural areas are losing population and representation, ag land owners could lose representation in taxation debates. (But consider: Drew Dennert is a farmer, but he lives in town, so maybe that problem is overstated.) Ag land owners could end up underrepresented and thus overtargeted for taxes, the same way that G. Mark Mickelson’s IM 25 tries to fund vo-techs by targeting the smoking minority instead of imposing a tax on everyone in South Dakota. Dr. Fouberg suggested that our shifting demographics could require us to seek a more fair tax system… and immediately the audience groaned knowingly, recognizing that her words meant progressive income tax and a whole separate public policy forum!

  3. Debbo 2018-10-04

    Thanks for the clarification Cory.

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