With Census nearing, senator makes final pitch for redistricting reform

With Census nearing, senator makes final pitch for redistricting reform

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Sen. John McCollister

Sen. John McCollister of Omaha

Sen. John McCollister initially envisioned Nebraska convening an independent commission charged with drawing the new political boundaries following the 2020 Census.

On Wednesday, the Omaha senator conceded his previous plan to tackle the "most consequential process" given to the Legislature wasn't feasible in today's political environment.

"It was a bridge too far," McCollister told the Legislature's Executive Board on Wednesday. "In my candid assessment, it would not pass this body or be signed by the governor."

McCollister took another try at redistricting reform this year, including ideas from several other senators into a new bill (LB1207) aimed at reducing the partisan influence on how congressional, legislative and other districts are drawn.

His bill would keep the Legislature's nine-member Redistricting Committee in place, but require the chair and vice chair receive the affirmative vote of at least two-thirds of the committee.

The Redistricting Committee would include no more than five members from a single political party, and no more than four from a second party, while Nebraska's three congressional districts would each be represented by three senators.

Once the Census information was in hand, the new political maps would be drawn without considering the political affiliation or voting history of the residents or registered voters living in a particular place, nor could the committee consider demographic information outside population figures.

Any maps that emerge from the process would be subject to a public meeting in each of the three congressional districts. The Legislature could not consider the maps until 14 days after the last public meeting.

McCollister's plan, which he called a "good first step" toward redistricting reform, was backed by farming and civil rights groups.

John Hansen, president of the Nebraska Farmers Union, said the plan was "doable and represents a clear process" that would keep partisan politics out of redistricting.

"A half a loaf is better than no loaf at all," Hansen said.

The ACLU of Nebraska sees McCollister's plan, which has four co-signers, all senators from the Omaha metro area, as solid in terms of strengthening participation and transparency and decreasing partisanship, executive director Danielle Conrad said.

"It's in line with our political culture in Nebraska," she said. "It's different. It's special. It's unique. It works for our citizenry."

Sheri St. Clair of the League of Women Voters testified in support of the bill, but asked consideration be given to the at least one in five Nebraskans who are registered as political independents.

Westin Miller, the director of public policy for Civic Nebraska, urged the Executive Board to advance the bill to the floor regardless of whether or not the senators believe it will pass in order to give citizens a chance to become more informed about the redistricting process.

"I think that discussion itself has tremendous value to the state, has tremendous value to your constituents regardless of what happens to the bill itself," Miller said.

The bill puts good protections in place to prevent gerrymandering, Common Cause Nebraska executive director Gavin Geis said, but the organization believes redistricting would be better conducted by McCollister's initial proposal of an independent commission.

The Executive Board took no action on the bill Wednesday.

During his pitch, McCollister said he's open to some changes to the bill.

He said he would be amenable to requiring a supermajority of Redistricting Committee members send the maps to the floor, increasing the deviation from ideal district size from 1% to 5% and requiring maps be available that would better demonstrate the proposed changes to political boundaries.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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