South Dakota lawmakers wrapped up the grueling, once-in-a-decade redistricting process last week, coming up with a plan that addresses some of the tough realities in this rural state — while also demonstrating one of the big flaws in the process.
The final compromise manages to ensure Native American representation in the Rapid City area and will create some districts around Sioux Falls that aren’t directly part of that city. Locally, District 18, which has long been just Yankton County, will now take on the northwest corner of Clay County. Meanwhile, District 17 will include Clay County as well as southern Union County, while the rest of Union County and Turner County will be tied into a district the runs up to Sioux Falls. Also, Bon Homme County will be back in one piece.
Redistricting may be tough for some people to get excited about — as Rep. Nancy York (R-Watertown) told KELO, “A lot of people don’t even know what we’re doing out here. The voters don’t care” — it can have a serious impact on legislation, especially when it comes to issues in which rural perspectives and urban opinions are at odds. It stands to reason that, with more representation shifting toward Sioux Falls, Rapid City and larger communities, the more pull those lawmakers (and, by extension, constituents) will have in shaping what comes out of Pierre each winter.
As we’ve noted before, this is not a problem unique to South Dakota. As urban centers gain more population in sprawling rural states, representation at the state capital will gradually reflect that trend, which does mean rural areas are gradually losing their volume at the Legislature. It will never go away, but their voices will increasingly become a smaller chorus in the decades ahead.
Meanwhile, some plans tossed around in Pierre throughout this process plainly showed their political designs, as some proposals carved up areas to dilute their power. It was not a coincidence, for instance, that one early proposal partitioned the city of Vermillion, one of the more Democratic communities in the state, into three different districts. It took an impressive amount of boundary gymnastics to formulate that proposal based along the population formula. Although eventually scuttled, the idea illustrates what the dubious art of gerrymandering is all about.
District 18 Rep. Ryan Cwach (D-Yankton) criticized the closed-door negotiating that went into drawing these lines.
“The whole fact that politicians are involved in this process of redistricting brings transparency questions,” he told The Associated Press. “My only conclusion from this whole thing, besides I’m thankful we got to a pretty competitive map, is that this should be the last time politicians draw the lines.”
This is something we’ve advocated in the past. The last thing we should want is lawmakers, whose power is based on how much control their party has, in charge of drawing the boundary lines of the election process which determines that power. As we’ve seen too many times at various levels, the ability to gerrymander districts has led to some ridiculously drawn districts that are twisted and contorted to great lengths in order to undercut parties, minorities and others. As some have accurately described it, this could be seen as an effort by politicians to pick their voters.
Redistricting should be a nonpartisan process in which gaining or diluting political advantage isn’t a tempting priority. While not all lawmakers take this approach when they head into the redistricting process, history tells us the idea is too tantalizing for some to resist.
It’s an issue that, ideally, should be addressed before this matter arises again in 10 years. Mind you, it probably won’t … but it really should.