Wonky, but important, city election lawsuits

Two lawsuits affecting the 2005 Minneapolis elections (page 4) may seem pretty wonky -- until you remember a little-known recall provision that created some turmoil recently in California.

Reporter Scott Russell writes, "the suits ask questions that go to the core of our democracy." One challenges new 2005 ward lines. This "redistricting suit" alleges that minority Minneapolitans were "packed" into the North-side 5th Ward (limiting minority influence on nearby wards), while the South-side Native American community was split into two wards, less able to influence either.

The other suit attacks existing wards, which because of the city's four-year election schedule, are based on the 1990 Census yet in place until January 2006. Over the years, some inner-city wards have grown more populous than others -- meaning some poor residents have less representation that the Constitution's one-person, one-vote standard.

Both suits have merit, but neither should win in court. Instead, Minneapolitans can fix future problems at the ballot box.

The 2005 redistricting suit is fueled partly by anger over a redrawn 7th Ward. The 7th now includes about a third of Downtown and some lake-area neighborhoods. It would pick up all of Downtown in the new map. That would push the 5th Ward (for years represented by Jackie Cherryhomes, now by Natalie Johnson Lee) further into North Minneapolis. The 5th has always had a big minority population; the new map makes it a whopping 81 percent.

So why not undo it? First, a new Downtown ward is legitimate policy choice; it can now be considered a community as much as any other. Critics predict a more poverty-laden 5th will have less Council influence, but city history shows a politician's power has a lot more to do with his or her savvy than his or her constituency. (Side note: both maps have five of 13 wards with 48 percent or more minorities; the 5th has 81 percent minorities, but a lot of kids, reducing the percentage of minority voters and perhaps undercutting a Voting Rights Act violation.)

Redistricting suit proponents believe new wards should closely reflect current ones. That's a fancy way to protect incumbents -- some of whom live on the edge of current districts -- and simply should not be a priority. (That said, their alternative map -- see page 4 -- gets kudos for having logical blocky wards so well drafted that those who drew the city's map should be chagrinned.)

The courts should take a pass, but Minneapolis voters can fix underlying problems. A new multiparty Redistricting Commission drew the 2005 map, a step forward from the days when dominant DFLers did it in someone's living room. However, Commission membership is based on the state's major parties; Republican and Independence parties, not strong enough to elect a councilmember, had a combined four of 10 Redistricting Commission seats, while the Greens, with two councilmembers, had only one redistricting member. A voter-approved charter change should base the next Commission on city votes, not a state standard, and include at least one seat for truly independent voters. Also, a neutral group -- not the quietly political City Charter Commission -- should pick Commission members.

The second suit, advocating a snap election before 2005, proposes too drastic a solution for too mild a problem. Yes, today's wards are based on 13-year-old data, and at its worst, one ward is 25 percent bigger than the least populous. But that's not unrepresentative enough to terminate four-year terms voters granted in 2001. (Early elections stink in California, and here.)

The solution is a charter amendment guaranteeing we won't first use census data in a mid-decade election such as 2005. The simplest way is to create a special two-year term after an election year ending in 1. That way, we'll always have the first post-Census election in a "3 year," 2013, 2023, etc. That's how state Senate elections are staggered -- and it ensures we'll never have wards as out-of-date as we have now.

David Brauer edits the Journal. E-mail him at dbrauer@swjournal.com.