Neither of the competing proposals to change Nebraska's process for drawing political boundaries in 2021 will see debate by the Legislature this year.
The diverging plans, one from Sen. Sara Howard and one from Sen. John McCollister, both of Omaha, were referenced to the Legislature’s Executive Board, where they were presented at a February hearing.
Howard’s proposal (LB466) kept the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee in charge of the process, erecting guidelines preventing boundaries from being created based upon the political affiliation or prior voting history of voters, and requiring any map go through public hearings in each congressional district before they can be considered by the Legislature.
McCollister’s plan (LB253) reworked a bill establishing an Independent Redistricting Citizen’s Advisory Committee that previously passed the Legislature 29-15 in 2016, but was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts.
The six-member independent commission, as outlined in McCollister’s bill, would have included two people from each of the state’s three congressional districts and set a limit on a total number of people from either major political party that could serve.
Both plans gained broad support from testifiers, who urged senators to send both to the floor for full debate, but Executive Board Chairman Mike Hilgers said Thursday neither will be voted on by the committee this year.
“We still have some time,” the Lincoln senator said. “I was reluctant to charge in and change it all when we don’t have a full appreciation of how it works.”
Instead, Hilgers and Omaha Sen. Wendy DeBoer will co-sponsor a legislative resolution calling for a study of Nebraska’s redistricting history, with the goal of educating senators — only two of the 49 have been in office during a redistricting year — before the 2020 session.
“I think it’s important for the body to understand how the process has worked, and understand where it has worked well and where it hasn’t,” Hilgers said.
DeBoer said the study will also examine the computer software used to draw congressional and legislative districts as well as other political boundaries for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, State Board of Education and other bodies as outlined in the state constitution.
The study will also look at other states’ redistricting procedures and how their policies may be compatible with Nebraska law, she added.
“We really think that that education piece, in terms of getting the body to understand what’s been done in the past and knowing how our software works, will be important for when we go to make rules around this next year,” DeBoer said.
The freshman senator representing northwest Omaha and Bennington said she believes it’s important to protect Nebraska’s democratic process in order to ensure it’s fair and absent even a hint of impropriety.
“We want voters to be confident in the Legislature’s ability to draw these lines,” DeBoer said.
Other states have been gearing up for the next redistricting process, which will take place following the 2020 Census.
Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, said five states conducted major changes to their redistricting procedures in 2018. Two states enacted new rules through the legislative process, three through citizens’ ballot initiatives.
More proposed changes were introduced this year, with a total of 17 states considering legislation to create independent commissions — a recent trend, Underhill said.
“The traditional tried and true” method for redistricting, however, remains going through the state legislature, she added.
“There are almost 50 ways to do redistricting,” Underhill said. “In addition to who does the redistricting, there’s also the question of how, and what rules a state wants to have in place.”
Nearly all states, Nebraska included, call for districts to be “compact and contiguous,” meaning voters could travel from any point in the district to any other without crossing a district boundary.
Nebraska has also previously required lawmakers to consider following county lines when drawing political boundaries unless the population allows for two districts of nearly equal population.
Legislatures have also passed resolutions calling for the drawing of boundaries to be easily understandable, avoid diluting the voting strength of minority populations, and not favor any political party over another.
The Supreme Court is expected to address two constitutional questions surrounding partisan gerrymandering as early as next month.
Lower courts found congressional maps drawn by Democrats in Maryland and Republicans in North Carolina had diluted the voting power of minority political parties, which subsequently violated the rights of voters.
Hilgers, a registered Republican working with DeBoer, a Democrat in the officially nonpartisan Legislature, said it's not clear if any decision by the court, which now swings conservative, will affect Nebraska’s next redistricting effort.
“I don't know if it will impact what we're doing," he said, "but it will give us good guardrails."