Redistricting guidelines considered

The Redistricting Committee heard testimony May 18 on proposed criteria that would guide lawmakers in the 2021 redistricting process.

The U.S. and state constitutions require the Legislature to redraw various governmental district boundaries every 10 years in response to population changes reflected in the U.S. Census. Senators are expected to complete the redistricting process in a special session in late summer or early fall after census data becomes available.

The Legislature will create new district boundaries for Nebraska’s three U.S. House of Representatives districts, 49 legislative districts and those of the Nebraska Supreme Court, Public Service Commission, State Board of Education and University of Nebraska Board of Regents.

Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the committee’s chairperson, said LR134 is similar to resolutions that guided the Legislature in past redistricting processes and is intended to ensure that new maps meet legal and constitutional requirements.

Under the proposed guidelines, lawmakers would use 2020 U.S. Census population data and census geography to establish district boundaries.

Among other criteria, district boundaries would follow county lines wherever practicable and define districts that are compact and contiguous. Boundaries also would define districts that are easily identifiable and understandable to voters and preserve communities of interest and the cores of prior districts.

District boundaries could not be established with the intention of favoring a political party or any other group or person, and lawmakers could give no consideration to the political affiliations of registered voters, demographic information other than population figures or the results of previous elections.

The criteria also would prohibit district boundaries that would result in the unlawful dilution of any minority population’s voting strength.

Lawmakers would draw congressional districts with populations as close to equal as practicable, with an overall range of deviation at or approaching zero percent. No plan would be considered that results in an overall range of deviation of more than 1 percent or a relative deviation of more than 0.5 percent from the ideal population.

For the remaining districts, the Legislature could not consider a plan that results in an overall range of deviation of more than 10 percent or a relative deviation of more than 5 percent from the ideal population.

Sheri St. Clair of the League of Women Voters of Nebraska testified in support of LR134, but she said some criteria could be clarified.

Although the group supports efforts to protect communities of interest in the redistricting process, she said, it is unclear how those communities would be defined. Additionally, St. Clair said, the goal of preserving the cores of prior districts typically is not included in redistricting rules.

“We’re hoping that this is intended to prevent gerrymandering, particularly in the metro areas,” she said.

St. Clair also encouraged lawmakers to create plans that deviate as little as possible from a district’s ideal population, saying too much deviation can result in a biased map.

Gavin Geis testified in support of the resolution on behalf of Common Cause Nebraska. He encouraged lawmakers to make the redistricting process as open to the public as possible.

“You can go above and beyond what’s required by law and give greater access to the work products of this committee and to all of the data you are using to draw these maps,” Geis said.

Precious McKesson also testified in support of the resolution, saying the intentional drawing of districts to favor one political party over another has the effect of disempowering minority voters in those districts.

“We know this is an unfair practice,” she said, “and we know what this does to the power of the vote in communities of color.”

Spike Eickholt testified in support of LR134 on behalf of the ACLU of Nebraska. In a recent poll of Nebraska voters, he said, 94 percent of respondents said they expect the redistricting process to be transparent, 93 percent expect it to be data driven and 91 percent want it to respect minority voting rights.

“Fair redistricting strengthens democracy,” Eickholt said, “and fair elections ensure better policy for more people and not just narrow partisan interests.”

Mark McHargue testified in opposition to the resolution on behalf of the Nebraska Farm Bureau and several other agricultural organizations.

He said the organizations oppose the provision that would require new district boundaries to preserve the cores of prior districts because it would prevent lawmakers from drawing maps that “protect the voice of rural Nebraskans” in the Legislature.

Sherry Vinton of Whitman gave neutral testimony on LR134. Vinton said rural Nebraska could lose up to three legislative districts this year, and she urged senators to “create rules that allow the flexibility to preserve as many rural seats in the Legislature as possible.”

The committee took no immediate action on the resolution.

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