Lawmakers approved criteria May 26 that will guide the Legislature 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 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.
LR134, introduced by the Redistricting Committee, sets criteria intended to ensure that redistricting plans are constitutionally acceptable.
Under the guidelines, lawmakers will use 2020 U.S. Census population data and census geography to establish district boundaries. Boundaries will follow county lines wherever practicable and define districts that are compact and contiguous.
District boundaries cannot be established with the intention of favoring a political party or any other group or person, and lawmakers cannot consider the political affiliations of registered voters, demographic information other than population figures or the results of previous elections.
The criteria also prohibit district boundaries that would result in the unlawful dilution of any minority population’s voting strength.
As far as possible, boundaries also must define districts that are easily identifiable and understandable to voters and preserve communities of interest.
Elkhorn Sen. Lou Ann Linehan, the committee’s chairperson, said the latter guideline is a provision not included in resolutions that guided the Legislature in previous redistricting processes. She defined communities of interest as geographic areas such as a neighborhood, school district or region whose residents have a common interest.
As introduced, LR134 also would have required that district boundaries preserve the core of prior districts. Under a Redistricting Committee amendment, adopted 30-16, district boundaries instead will allow for the preservation of those areas.
Linehan said preserving the core of prior districts should not take precedence over other redistricting principles, especially those that ensure district boundaries are compact, contiguous and preserve communities of interest.
“I don’t think any of us want to not preserve the cores … but just common sense tells me it’s more important to keep communities of interest together,” she said.
Sen. Tom Briese of Albion supported the amendment. He said census data likely will show a population shift from west to east, meaning lawmakers will have to eliminate a legislative district in western Nebraska or expand the geographic area of certain western districts to ensure equality of representation in the Legislature.
“Either way, it may be extremely difficult to adhere to the preservation of the core standard and do our job right,” Briese said.
Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld opposed the committee amendment and introduced a floor amendment that would have required new district boundaries to preserve the core of prior districts, as in the original proposal.
Morfeld said the requirement was included in guidelines for the past two redistricting processes and is intended to prevent gerrymandering. Preserving the core of a prior district is a more objective standard than preserving a community of interest, he said.
“There will need to be some changes that are made — some changes that people don’t like — because of population shifts,” Morfeld said. “But I think it is important to maintain the core of our current districts.”
Sen. Carol Blood of Bellevue also opposed the committee amendment. She said the requirement to preserve the core of prior districts is designed to respect the will of voters who chose an incumbent to represent a particular district in a recent election.
Blood said many states have added guidelines related to communities of interest — which she said are not well defined — to their redistricting guidelines in order to circumvent prohibitions against racial gerrymandering.
Also in opposition was Omaha Sen. Steve Lathrop. He said allowing the committee to preserve the core of prior districts rather than requiring them to do so would make the guideline “completely meaningless.”
The change could allow lawmakers to “scramble” legislative districts in urban areas by lumping Omaha and Lincoln into single communities of interest, Lathrop said.
Morfeld’s amendment failed on a vote of 16-28.
Under LR134, lawmakers will draw congressional districts with populations as close to equal as practicable, with an overall range of deviation at or approaching zero percent. No plan may 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 may 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.
Morfeld introduced another amendment that would have reduced the maximum overall range of deviation for those districts to 8 percent. He said the change would result in districts that more closely reflect the one-person, one-vote rule established by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s.
Briese opposed the amendment, saying it would tie the Legislature’s hands. He said the Supreme Court gives states “considerable deference” in establishing legislative district boundaries and has allowed maximum deviations in excess of 10 percent if those plans meet a legitimate state goal, such as keeping districts compact and contiguous.
The amendment failed on a vote of 15-28.
Senators voted 31-16 to adopt LR134.