On Monday, October 4, Governor Eric Holcomb signed into law the proposed 2021 redistricting maps for the State of Indiana. In a prepared statement, Holcomb thanked “both the House and Senate for faithfully following through in an orderly and transparent way,” adding “a special thanks to every Hoosier who participated in the process by sharing their local perspective and input.” Critics reacted very differently, decrying both the process—as rushed and secretive—and the result—an unfair dilution of minority and urban voter strength. Ultimately, whatever the validity of either of these statements, the 2021 maps do ensure one thing: solid incumbent protection and a continued advantage to the current party in power in the Indianapolis statehouse. The following considers the process that played out in Indiana, the criticisms leveled against this process, and its likely results.
Like past iterations of redistricting, the 2021 redistricting process in Indiana could not get underway without data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But as it has affected so many other instances of life in the United States, the COVID-19 pandemic caused snags, resulting in a census data delay of more than four months—data that was expected to be released in March ended up with a release date in early August. In a series of five redistricting hearings, held in select locations throughout the state from August 6th to August 11th, stakeholders, voting activists, and interested members of the public disagreed on what should occur as a result of the census data delay. Some of those testifying argued the redistricting process must be slowed down to permit the public an opportunity to review proposed maps and voice their concerns—after all, they would be drawn in just about one month, publicly released, and then go to a vote soon after. Instead, Indiana Republicans noted their intention to quickly advance the maps once they obtained the data, raising their own concerns that further delays could cause problems for county officials preparing for the 2022 election.
In Indiana, the state legislature holds the authority for the process of redistricting. The initial responsibility for drafting the proposed maps falls to the state Elections and Apportionment Committee in the Indiana House of Representatives. For the 2021-2022 legislative session, that committee is comprised of nine Republican members and four Democratic members. And the final vote for the proposed maps was decidedly partisan. On September 20th, 2021, falling on party lines, the Republican-controlled committee voted nine to four to advance their proposed maps on to the Indiana House and Senate.
Support for and critique against the proposed maps ranged wildly, even though the actual changes to the lines were subtle and could fairly be described as minor or nondescript. For example, the Republican committee chairman, state Rep. Tim Wesco, R-Osceola, noted that the committee devoted “ a significant amount of time and attention to this process, as is appropriate, . . .” and that “[t]hese are as close as they possibly can be made [to the ideal population per district.]” Likewise, the maps were so similar to the 2011 districting, they lacked any superficial indications of new problems. Alternatively, Indiana Democratic Chairman Mike Schmuhl commented that Indiana Republicans “held shadow hearings that felt more like a comment box, promised a process that would be ‘fair’ and ‘transparent,’ and when it mattered most, manipulated the system once again to favor themselves over Hoosier voters.” In the end, when considering preliminary studies of the matter, one thing does appear clear: even with little change, Republican mapmakers have solidified their electoral control of the state for the next decade.
According to a study conducted by Professor Chrisopher Warshaw, the Republicans keeping the maps from 2011 largely unchanged tends to buttress and entrench partisan control of the state, In the study, commissioned by the nonpartisan organization Women4ChangeIndiana, Prof. Warshaw argues the maps have “historically extreme levels of partisan bias,” some of the most extreme in the nation, and disproportionately favor Republicans. This partisan bias, Prof. Warshaw concluded, leads to a map “more pro-Republican than 97% of the maps over the past 50 years” and one of the “most extreme gerrymanders in history.” There is other data of merit as well. The nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center’s PlanScore project assigns useful metrics to redistricting maps. For Indiana’s 2021 redistricting, in the Indiana U.S House map, PlanScore assigned an efficiency gap of 14.4% to the benefit of Republicans. For the Indiana state legislative map, PlanScore assigned an efficiency gap of 12.1% to the benefit of Republicans. In both maps, Democratic votes are wasted to a greater degree, and Republican votes are more efficient by those stated metrics. With a similar goal of establishing the data of a state redistricting plan, the Princeton Gerrymandering Project calculatedIndiana as largely uncompetitive: finding that there were only 8 out of 100 competitive Indiana House districts, only 3 out of 50 competitive Indiana Senate districts, and no U.S. House districts being deemed as competitive. As Rep. Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, explains: “With 56% of the votes, the Republican gerrymander engineers 77% of the congressional seats for Republicans.”
As the data above suggests, such partisan entrenchment has actual consequences for both state and federal elections, even in a notoriously uncompetitive state. For example, in Indiana’s 5th Congressional District, Republican U.S. Representative Victoria Spartz narrowly defeated Democrat Christina Hale by 4 percentage points in the 2020 election. In the 2021 redistricting, Republican line drawers have cut off the top of Marion county—whose county seat is Indianapolis, the state capital and largest city—from the 5th Congressional District and given it to the 7th Congressional District—a reliably Democratic stronghold and held by Rep. André Carson since 2008. In a hypothetical rematch between Rep. Spartz and Ms. Hale in the 5th District, the Democratic contender would face even longer odds without those reliably blue voters of Marion county. This example is one of multiple electoral races in Indiana which are predicted to become less competitive as a result of the ‘fine-tuning’ evident in the partisan redistricting process of 2021.
Ultimately, there were only three opportunities for public testimony at the Indiana Statehouse once the proposed maps were released. Then, the maps easily passed both chambers of the state legislature, and, as noted here, was signed by the Governor. In the majority opinion of Rucho v. Common Cause, Chief Justice John Roberts states that “[p]artisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of federal courts,” cementing the permissibility of the actions in Indiana. With that ruling in mind, the State of Indiana’s extreme example of incumbent, partisan protection seems to have solid legal footing, even if it a tenuous position in the court of fairness.