I only packed for two days.

The Legislature was supposed to finish the legislative Redistricting process on Nov. 8. We then planned to meet briefly in the morning on Nov. 9 to consider appointing a committee to consider the impeachment proceedings against Attorney General Jason Ravsnborg. After that, we would all head back home to our families in time for dinner.

Instead, Nov. 8, 2021 A.D. through Nov. 10, 2021 A.D. were three tense days of back-room negotiations about something I have spent the last six months working on as part of the Redistricting committee. By the end of the session, several legislators would cry, others would publicly swear vengeance and one, the House Republican Majority Leader, had to be taken to the hospital by ambulance. After three days, the final map passed overwhelmingly in the Senate and passed by only two votes in the House, only because the House Democrats voted for it.

How did it end with a legislator in the hospital, others in tears and me in a day-old suit and tie wondering why I was so naïve to think we would finish as scheduled?

It started several months ago with a committee of senators and representatives tasked with producing one new map for state legislative districts. The South Dakota Constitution requires the legislature to “redraw the lines” every ten years. The broad theme of redistricting is that every person should have equal access to their legislative representatives. Therefore, redistricting becomes necessary to account for population changes over time. For example, former District 6 consisted of Tea, Harrisburg and Lennox. While District 6 had the same population as every other district in 2010, District 6 had about 11,000 more people in it by 2020. In contrast, District 18 (Yankton) added about 900 more people in it over that same 10-year span and many other districts lost population. After the approved map, each district now has approximately 25,333 people in it, give or take about 5%.

Even when it was formed, I had fears that the Senate Republican leadership and House Republican leadership would use redistricting as a proxy war for a larger battle over the tone and tenor of the Legislature. As one of two Democrats on the committee, I often felt more like a mediator than an advocate, trying to keep the peace in a broken family. We stopped convening as a joint committee of the House and Senate after about three meetings because the Senate Republicans put out a proposed map for our consideration. The House Republican committee members were caught off-guard by this proposal, and instead of working on the Senate’s proposed map, they decided the House needed its own map. From that point onward, we never really had committee meetings.

In October, the Senate and House committees toured the state to hear from voters about redistricting. Our itinerary was Rapid City to Mission to Mobridge to Aberdeen to Watertown and ending in Sioux Falls. I drove every mile. I learned a lot on this tour. Rapid City voters wanted to see North Rapid City, an urban Native American enclave, be a part of an urban district. Wall and Lemmon did not want to be in “Native districts” and Tribes actually wanted the same thing. You know, Cowboys and Indians … Oil and water … fences make good neighbors. No one really knew how to draw districts in the Aberdeen area.

Sioux Falls residents did not want rural Minnehaha County people representing city residents. Yankton County Republican Roger Meyer testified that Tabor should be with Yankton, and I agree with him! However, doing so actually caused a lot of problems in other parts of the proposed map. People refer to redistricting as puzzle-making, but it is a lot like Jenga, too. When you move one piece, the whole thing can come tumbling down. I headed back to Yankton after our final meeting in Sioux Falls convinced that the special session for redistricting was going to come down to the Democratic votes in the House.

Typically, every bill is supposed to get a fair hearing and come to the floor, but on the first day of special session, the Speaker of the House and House Republican leadership refused to let the Senate’s map come to the floor for a full vote out of fear that it might pass. Instead, the House Republican leadership wanted to negotiate a compromise bill in back rooms. Then, people just kind of walked around waiting for some sort of deal to be reached.

By 6 p.m. on Day 2, a few minor changes led to what many thought was the final compromise. Virtually all of the proposals made by Sen. Troy Heinert and me were put into the Senate map, and the House Republican leadership got two relatively small compromises around Sioux Falls and in the northeast part of the state. At 7 p.m., the House Republicans had their meeting to discuss the compromise, and shortly after, the House Republican leader fainted and was rushed to the hospital. We recessed until Wednesday morning.

The next morning, the compromise was no more. With the House Republican Leader out of the chamber, the House Republican Assistant Leader wanted to renegotiate. Fortunately, everyone’s patience was wearing thin. After several hours of chicken and one tense public conference committee meeting, the compromise map was sent to the House and Senate for a vote.

I actually felt the Senate Republicans’ initial map was a good start, and I appreciate that they were willing to listen to Sen. Heinert and me on ways to improve the map. They could have chosen to be partisan and refused to take our suggestions to improve the map, but we actually had a really good, bipartisan dialogue over several months on how to improve it, particularly in Indian country. This does not mean Democrats got everything we wanted. We compromised, too. That’s good government to me.

In the end, the map passed by two votes because enough House Republicans and all House Democrats felt the map had compact, contiguous districts that would give voters better opportunities to elect people actually from their communities.

Across the country, redistricting is typically a tool used by the state’s dominate political party to protect itself. The new South Dakota legislative district map is probably the only bipartisan map in the country. These last several months were incredibly trying for me, and I’ll be honest, redistricting has been my least favorite part of being in the Legislature, but I’m glad we continued to work through all the politics and gamesmanship to get a pretty good map. It is far from perfect, but I believe it is going to result in less partisan representation, more political balance and more community representation in the Legislature. I think that type of representation will lead to better ideas and solutions for South Dakota.

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