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Dennert, Legislators Don’t Want Us Touching Their Gerrymandering Software

My Representative Drew Dennert (R-3/Aberdeen) disappoints me by joining a majority of his Republican redistricting colleagues in voting not to let us mere civilians touch the software the Capitol Club members get to use as they draw the new Legislative district maps:

The committees drawing boundaries for South Dakota’s legislative election districts decided Monday the public can’t use the Legislature’s taxpayer-funded software.

The House and Senate panels voted 10-3 that the software should be available only to the committees’ members and the Legislative Research Council staff.

The concern was that the public would offer too many ideas for the LRC to handle before the November 8 special session.

Representative Drew Dennert spoke on behalf of others who served with him on the panels’ joint subcommittee on technology.

“We thought it would be best for this committee to have access to that software, and then as we work through it to hopefully with our LRC staff to get some other options for individuals of the public who like to draw maps, and then have a way for individuals to submit maps and send them to us. But as far as the actual software we’re using today, we’d like for us to just keep that open to the 15 of us who are on this committee,” Dennert said [Bob Mercer, “S.D. Panels Say Public Can’t Use Legislature’s Redistricting Software,” KELO-TV, 2021.08.30].

Yes, Gaia forbid that the public offer too many ideas.

Now I will grant that practical reasons could prevent making the Legislature’s redistricting software publicly available for our tinkering. The Legislature may have purchased only enough licenses for LRC staff and the gerrymandering committee members. They may not be able to afford licenses for thousands of interested citizens. The software may be installed locally on Legislative computers or on a secure server that only legislators and LRC staff can access.

I will suggest that the public is unlikely to flood the Legislature with alternate maps. The very imperfect map I posted yesterday resulted from three tries that took several hours over several days of tinkering, and that was without taking into account all of the legal requirements for majority-minority districts and other criteria the Legislature must follow. Producing a complete 35-district map, along with possible splits for single-member House districts as we currently have in Districts 26 and 28, takes a lot of time and attention, which will naturally limit the number of review-worthy maps the LRC might receive from citizen activists.

And for those hardy few who do want to propose alternative district maps, the online software I’m using, District Builder, is free, easy to use, and apparently sufficient for the purposes of public input in the redistricting process.

But Representative Dennert, think about the civics education opportunity here. You are engaged in a once-in-a-decade process. You have a rare opportunity to invite citizens and especially students to engage in a keenly important and complicated process. As a classroom activity, trying to draw fair Legislative districts provides a fascinating interdisciplinary exercise in government (what factors are important in providing fair and effective representation?), politics (how are various parties distributed around our state? How can changing boundaries affect the chances of certain candidates and parties to win office?), geography (where are the most dense and most sparse communities in South Dakota? What constitutes a community?), geometry (how do different shapes affect average driving times?), and math (What is the average variance of your district sizes?). Inviting students and citizens to use the same software as legislators to submit actual maps for consideration by our elected officials would lend those lessons a greater feeling of authenticity and meaning.

If we can’t open up the Legislature’s software for public use, the LRC should at least post a link to District Builder and actively invite public to draw, share, and discuss possible Legislative maps with each other and with our official mapmakers. More public participation would help more people understand the ills of gerrymandering and the challenges of drawing fair election maps.


  1. Mark Anderson 2021-08-31 16:55

    What you need to find out, does the software allow a political count of people? Is that separate and looked at as these maps are made. All this should be done on a committee, IA Iowa. So nice I said it twice.

  2. John Dale 2021-08-31 17:23

    Gerrymandering is not a process, as I understand it, to benefit the public write large. It is a process that has been abused to usurp and secure power.

    I’m not judging, but let’s be honest.

    I know that you know that I know that you know that this is true.

  3. grudznick 2021-08-31 17:33

    grudznick sure hopes that a lot of people, Mr. H included, show up with copies of their maps to discuss with the legislatures during the public comment periods of the sessions. Make them pretty and of interesting shapes and try to reduce the number of districts down as far as you can go to 25. The fewer in the legislatures the more powerful each of them becomes and the more floor space to stretch out, and the fewer fellows the lobbists need to sway to their way of thinking. I would make each district as long and strung out as possible. I bet you could make a district that goes from Minnesota all the way to Wyoming if you tried hard enough. And if you had them meet in the exact corner of the state you could also make a Nebraska to Nodakia district, skinny and snaking about and make Pine Ridge and Thunderhawk become sister cities in the same district, numbered 25.

  4. grudznick 2021-08-31 17:34

    Mr. Dale is righter than right.

  5. Dicta 2021-08-31 17:48

    Gerrymandering hasn’t been abused, it IS the abuse. What’s being abused is the redistricting process. But, for once, I agree with John’s statement.

  6. John Kennedy Claussen, Sr., 2021-08-31 17:50

    As one who attended that committee meeting, I was offended that the committee is keeping that info under the control of a few.

    They also claim they only have two months to do seven months of work due to late census numbers, but actually they have had at least five months and not two months, because preliminary federal census data has been out since late May and I used that preliminary data at the June 1st redistricting committee meeting with no problem and those numbers are still holding up.

    There’re private redistricting websites like Dave’s, which will have to suffice for those of us who are not privileged with the LRC mapping software, however:

  7. Arlo Blundt 2021-08-31 18:18

    Well..I seriously doubt that many of those cowboys are using any software on their own…there’s probably a couple with the skill and inclination to give a map a go round, but I think the committee will hang about until the LRC comes up with a choice of three different maps, and then they’ll hash it out from there. “Close enough for government work” they will say and leave the final up to the court.

  8. Porter Lansing 2021-08-31 18:50

    The LRC will just hit auto-fill and that’ll be what the new gerrymandered districts will look like.

  9. Richard Schriever 2021-08-31 20:35

    The boundaries will be drawn by LRC and “consultants” (grudz and this ilk) the actual Reps, who are required by law to draw the maps – will not.

  10. Guy 2021-08-31 21:47

    The Independent Vote is what you need to counter all this, Democrats. It’s true. If you take registered Independents plus registered Democrats in South Dakota it almost equals 51% of voters. Democrats can give the Republicans a huge run for their money by honing in a message for supporting issues important to Independents that the Republicans either do not care about or do not support. It will take some research and work to do, but it certainly can be done. Ask Stephanie Herseth. Herseth won a huge chunk of West River counties in all four of her successful Congressional campaigns. Stephanie did it by winning the Independent vote across the state. Herseth’s motto in all her campaigns were: “An Independent Voice for South Dakota”. So, it has been done and it can be done again!

  11. Guy 2021-08-31 22:33

    Yep, Lord forbid the public actually gets to see what’s going on! Isn’t it nice that we fund this software and we fund them to draw political lines to favor themselves! Cory, can this be challenged in court?

  12. Guy 2021-08-31 22:41

    Porter that was not at all true at all. Stephanie truly was an independent and she did not support the Republican party lock-stock-and-barrel like you want to believe or make her out to be. The truth is you don’t like to be reminded that it was Stephanie Herseth and Tim Johnson who were the LAST elected and successful Democrat statewide office holders. Herseth and Johnson are a constant reminder of how successful Democrats will win seats back in South Dakota. But, if you want your party to remain in the political wilderness in this state who am I to stop you?? I’m just trying to help you.

  13. Porter Lansing 2021-09-01 03:01

    Guy … Read the article from Roll Call; a non partisan source.
    Quote: 2010 –
    Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (D-S.D.), the administrative co-chairwoman of the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition, has forced Pelosi to scale back her ambitions.
    – Blue Dog clout has soared in recent weeks, and liberal priorities from health care benefits for the jobless to tens of billions of dollars in aid to the states have ended up on the chopping block. In the tumult, Herseth Sandlin has emerged to head a new generation of Blue Dogs.

  14. Richard Schriever 2021-09-01 04:52

    Guy, FYI – the ideology of the majority of the “independents” in SD lies to the right of Republicanism. Independents in SD should not be mistaken for inbetweener moderates.

  15. John 2021-09-01 06:54

    I smell the whiff of another constitutional amendment . . . a redistricting commission: 3 democrats, 3 independents, and 3 republicans. Working for the Chief Justice, a position less partisan than the legislature and governor.

  16. Guy 2021-09-01 07:56

    Nancy Pelosi and radical left wing will never sell in South Dakota. Stephanie was the last successful Democrat Congresswoman to represent South Dakota and she did it by attracting support from Independent voters. If you want to win here, ditch Nancy Pelosi.

  17. Donald Pay 2021-09-01 08:08

    Herseth Sandlin lost on one issue: health care. She voted against the ACA. There are issues you can be all blue doggie on. Health care isn’t one of them. You are either a Democrat or you are a Republican on health care. She was a Republican on health care, and that was the nail in her coffin.

  18. O 2021-09-01 08:53

    Guy, what is Nancy Pelosi asking Democrats to push that SD voters would be against?

  19. Guy 2021-09-01 08:54

    The Democrats cut off their nose to spite their face over Herseth’s vote on healthcare. That’s why their party is still in the wilderness in South Dakota and Stephanie was the LAST successful Democrat Congresswomen to represent the state. That is what happens when EXTREME political ideology over one issue destroyed the Democrats in South Dakota. However, the Democrats can still learn to put that aside after 10 years and try to become sensible again. Independent votes are the ONLY way the SDDP has a chance in this state. There are not enough radical leftists in South Dakota to attract anyone to their cause and thank God because I lived in one those states: Oregon. Talk about a screwed-up state. Yes, I’m not a fan of one party running a state, but, if I had to choose as an Independent it would be the Republicans of South Dakota over the Democrats running Oregon. Yikes!

  20. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 08:56

    John Dale, my point, of course, is that Drew and his colleagues will use their secret software to gerrymander the state again, drawing the Aberdeen split carefully to keep Drew and Al as a ticket team and to reduce their potential Democratic opposition.

  21. O 2021-09-01 09:04

    Guy, health care is the issue? peeling aside the rights demagoguery on the issue, what is it about the ACA that is objectionable?

  22. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 09:11

    Good point, John KC: I suspect the Legislature is puffing itself up a bit, trying to make it sound like they’re working hard. Did they really put much work in back in 2011 or 2001 before the last couple months before the redistricting deadline?

  23. Guy 2021-09-01 09:12

    I really think the Democrats could move on and make up again with Stephanie Herseth and she would be a PRIME candidate for Governor. Ten years has been long enough to hold a political grudge…way too long if you ask me. But, if some in the SDDP keep this grudge going and insist on left-wing ideological purity, they will not attract any new Independent voters or win any statewide elections. The proof is that they still do not have a slate of candidates and it’s almost Labor Day. The sound of crickets tells me that they are not very confident moving forward and do not want to let go of holding on to issues that just will not resonate in South Dakota. Maybe it is time for a THIRD PARTY of reasonable Independent people that actually represent the middle road of South Dakota.

  24. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 09:13

    Arlo, that’s not a bad guess: LRC will handle the major mathematical and compliance issues, and then the GOP leaders will come in to tweak the lines to serve their partisan purposes, segregate certain candidates (both Democrats and certain disfavored Republicans) from their communities and bases of support, and protect their favorites from serious challenge.

  25. Donald Pay 2021-09-01 09:17

    Guy, health care isn’t extreme political ideology. It’s life and death, and financial viability for many families.
    That’s what SHS didn’t understand, and that’s why she lost. It’s why Republicans and their anti-mask/anti-vax/anti-ACA ideology endangers that party, though they are starting from a higher cliff in SD, and have more room to fall.

    I have no problem forgiving people their political mistakes. That had to be done, for example, on the nuclear waste issue, where some Democrats were really as bad as Republicans on trying to turn South Dakota into a nuclear dump for the nation. However, it takes about five-ten years to forgive a major political mistake like SHS had with the ACA.

  26. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 09:17

    OK, Guy, how do we draw a map to optimize the impact of independent voters? And how do we draw a map that distinguishes among the real swing independents, the independents in name only who follow the radical right-wing party line as faithfully as registered Pubs, and the folks who register I just to conceal from their customers and employers the fact that they are actually Democrats?

    (By the way, South Dakota Democrats already tack to the right of the middle of the road, and we see how well that has worked for their political fortunes. See SHS, Billie Sutton….)

  27. Guy 2021-09-01 09:23

    Cory, I had asked earlier if this move to restrict us from seeing a process we are funding can be challenged in court. Can this be challenged in court? If it can be challenged in court, now would be the time to do it. A court challenge could lead to a movement to make redistricting more fair. We should demand that a independent redistricting commission take over the work that is represented by 1/3 Democrats, 1/3 Independents, and 1/3 Republicans.

  28. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 09:44

    The discussion of health care gets me thinking: what if for redistricting we tried to draw together communities of opinion? I don’t like looking at any of these distinctions: I’d rather just look at raw population balance, contiguity, compactness, and respect for existing political and natural boundaries.

    But if we’re going to look at voter characteristics, suppose we dropped party labels, which particularly in the case of independents don’t do a great job of telling us what policies voters actually support. Suppose we could identify the most important ongoing political issues facing the state. I don’t know what process we’d use to identify those issues, but suppose we focused on budget issues, taxes and spending. Suppose we surveyed every voter in the state and came up with two opinion matrices: how much should we tax people (percentage of income) and by what methods (property tax, sales tax, income tax), and how much should we spend on major budget items (education, health care, public safety, infrastructure…?).

    Imagine mapping those survey results. Imagine multiple maps which would show hotspots of fiscal conservatism and liberalism, support for progressive tax reform versus acceptance of regressive taxes with a few hot pockets of absolute anarchism opposing all taxes, communities seeking higher prioritization of education, communities seeking greater investment in health care…. Then imagine (and yeah, we’re going to need computers for this) drawing districts to produce a bell curve distribution of mostly fiscal middle-of-the-road voters (say, 20–25 of our 35 districts) and then some deliberately gerrymandered districts, possibly not even contiguous, that would draw together like-minded voters on certain fiscal issues. Maybe we’d forge a couple of archipelago districts from our university and vo-tech communities to ensure that communities with a keen interest in investing in education get at least a couple of dedicated senators. Maybe a couple more districts would draw together voters with an extreme commitment to progressive tax reform (and watch that survey: maybe when we phrase progressive tax reform in terms of actual policies and economic equity rather than in terms of party labels, we’ll find, as we often do when we do initiatives and referenda, that South Dakotans are far more “liberal” than their partisan registration and candidate voting patterns suggest). Maybe we’d craft a couple districts to bring together the hard right that wants to defund every aspect of government except for abortion cops.

    I know this sounds complicated, but I wonder: are there better ways to determine the representative needs of the people than checking their race and political party affiliation?

  29. bearcreekbat 2021-09-01 09:53

    Guy, one of my current goals is to understand the factual basis for the frequent meme that the Democratic party has a “radical left” component that is advocating some extreme policy positions. I have been relatively unsuccessful. I agree that there is a small segment of crazy and harmful individuals that might call themselves “Democrats,” among other labels, yet it seems those folks have no meaningful influence on the Democratic party’s proposed policies, and are unable to elect folks with the same crazy ideas. Thus, they don’t seem to factually qualify as examples of the actual Democratic party. Perhaps your experiences in Oregon will help me advance my goal of learning whether there is a factual basis for the “radical left” meme.

    You say that you live in Oregon and that the “Democrats running Oregon” have really screwed up your State. Can you provide one or more factual examples of laws or policies that the Democrats passed in Oregon, or other actions of the Democratic party in that State, that you consider to be screwed up?

    And like O, I too am curious whether you can identify any factual examples of “what is Nancy Pelosi asking Democrats to push that SD voters would be against?”

    This post is not meant to contest your opinion, but rather is seeking to understand a possible factual basis for the “radical left” meme, flowing from your experience with Democrats making policy in Oregon.

  30. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2021-09-01 09:55

    Guy, I’m going to guess that a challenge to give the public access to the LRC’s redistricting software could be based on our open records laws. We could try to establish that the software is a public record not subject to any of the exceptions. But legislators could counter that the software itself is not a record any more than the pens or printers that produce other records.

    As for asking for an independent commission, the only way to do that is to amend Article 3 Section 5 of the South Dakota Constitution, which says, “The Legislature shall apportion its membership…” which I read as an exclusive delegation of that power to the Legislature. I’m not sure the Legislature itself can delegate that authority to any other body. The League of Women Voters and its Drawn Together SD coalition is circulating an initiative petition right now to create an independent redistricting commission—go sign one of those petitions!

  31. rradical 2021-09-01 10:18

    Our districts are clearly drawn on racial lines. Just look at Rapid City – we have districts specifically drawn to disenfranchise the Native population of North Rapid, which is split between four districts.

  32. rradical 2021-09-01 10:21

    Most of these software systems now are connected to web platforms, so they could be very open about their process without giving people keys or licenses to software. If they were interested.

  33. Donald Pay 2021-09-01 11:33

    rradical is correct. North Rapid and parts of the neighborhoods south of East North and old Robbinsdale have more Native households. There was a purposeful effort to split this vote, and also to split the vote of the lower income white populations and cram them into districts with higher income white voters. I lived in Rapid City when Sen. Sears began this gerrymander process in the 1990’s, but by 2000 they had fully gerrymandered the city.

  34. William R Thompson 2021-09-01 13:33

    As one in the weeds of redistricting ten years ago, I must challenge the assumption that the legislative committee and/or the Legislative Research Council creates the redistricting map. They do not. It’s one fellow in the governor’s office, and he probably already has the map in his back pocket. Everything else is merely formality and cover up. Cory, here is a subject for your investigative reporting. Bill Thompson, former Representative, district 13

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