A day after releasing most of their proposed congressional and legislative district maps, Indiana House Republicans offered their first public explanation of how they’ve conducted this year’s redistricting process and sought to defend it against charges of gerrymandering.

Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, the House majority caucus leader and author of the redistricting legislation, was the first to testify in a House Elections and Apportionment Committee hearing Wednesday, describing the complexity of trying to reconcile “tectonic shifts in population” in the state’s nine congressional districts and 100 Indiana House districts. Proposed Indiana Senate maps are to be released next week.

Due to the state’s 4.7% overall population increase recorded in the 2020 census, Steuerwald said, balancing Indiana House district populations required, on average, the addition of about 3,000 people to each district — a balancing act complicated by sharp increases in some urban and suburban populations and sharp decreases in rural areas.

“Some districts had to be combined,” Steuerwald said, resulting in some incumbents winding up the same district. In a news conference before the committee meeting, it was noted that all of those incumbents — including House Speaker Todd Huston — are Republicans.

During the news conference, Huston denied that partisanship was involved in the drawing of the maps.

“We wanted to have maps that honored the goals and what we were trying to accomplish,” he said. “People are going to think what they want to think.”

The biggest change to the congressional map shrank the 6th District, allotting its former southeastern counties to the 9th District, and balanced the population by including a portion of southern Marion County.

“We heard public testimony concerns (about the 6th District) running from Muncie all the way to the Ohio River,” Huston said during the news conference. “By coming across Johnson and Marion County, frankly where the population numbers grew… it really kind of drew itself.”

In the Indiana House of Representatives, six of the districts redrawn put two incumbent Republicans together, though some legislators in those districts have already announced retirement plans. Districts around Kosciusko County, northwest Cass County and southwestern Boone County could possibly see two incumbents in next year’s races.

Four of the six new districts created without an incumbent are in the doughnut counties around Indianapolis. Boone County residents near the Hendricks County and Clinton County borders will have open seats for the 2022 elections in two newly created districts.

County clerks can’t draw their precinct maps until after the General Assembly finishes the district maps — clerks then pass their precinct maps to school boards and city councils. Clerks said previously they worried about the pace of the process, which could hurt school board members running for election in 2022 because of residency requirements.

However, Rep. Timothy Wesco, whose Elections and Apportionment Committee oversees the local election process, didn’t provide concrete details countering their concerns. He said it could “potentially” be addressed in the January 2022 session, which starts after the school board residency period begins in November.

Durng the committee hearing, in response to a question from a Democratic committee member, Matt Pierce, D-Bloomington, Steuerwald said the hiring of Jason Torchinsky, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney known for his defense of Republican-drawn maps in other states, had been mischaracterized, adding that Torchinksy had not been involved in the drawing of district lines.

“It’s legal representation, not a consultant, and certainly not what was indicated by some.,” Steuerwald said. “I’ll be blunt. I’m a country lawyer, so anytime I tackle an issue I ask experts. … We wanted to ensure that these met all state and federal requirements.”

The priorities in redrawing the districts, Steuerwald testified, were balancing populations, conducting a transparent process — achieved, he said, through nine public hearings around the state in August — along with keeping “communities of interest” such as counties, cities and townships intact and drawing compact and continguous districts.

Asked by Pierce if House Republicans had sought to draw districts that were politically competitive — another key goal of redistricting reform groups — Steuerwald replied, “I did not make that analysis.”

Despite Steuerwald’s defense of the Republican redistricting process, the public testimony that followed was generally critical of it, citing the lack of competitive balance in most districts and the timing of Wednesday’s hearing, about 25 hours after the maps’ release on the Indiana House Republicans’ website.

The hearing was recently scheduled in addition to another previously set for Thursday morning due to the Yom Kippur holiday, and the attendance was significantly less than that at some of the public hearings held around the state.

“This all just seems like you’re trying to insulate yourself from critique,” said Jacob Schwartz, a senior at Indiana University who said he skipped his ethics class to be at the hearing.

Martha Lamkin, a board member with reform group Women4Change, criticized the proposed districts for not being competitive and said that will perpetuate Indiana’s historically low voter turnout problem.

“Our current districts have been cracked and packed so there are super-supermajorities in this House and in the Senate,” she said.

“We did not receive the maps in time to analyze them as has been asked and the procedure has not been transparent,” said Polly Spiegel, of Marion County. “The legislature is taking what is supposed to be public testimony from a public who knows very little.”

During the news conference, Huston defended the timeline, saying that it was important to give county clerks enough time to draw their own precincts.

“It wasn’t our choice to have this data on Aug. 12,” Huston said about the process, which usually happens during the legislative session in March or April.

“I wish we could have done it sooner.”

In remarks at the hearing’s conclusion, Democratic Rep. Pierce also noted that the release of the maps Tuesday was not in the “Shapefile” format needed for detailed analysis, although those files were made available Wednesday — too late, he said, for anyone testifying hours later to understand the proposed districts in the necessary depth.

“We got slow-walked on that,” Pierce said of the Shapefile data release, adding that House Democrats have only begun to analyze the new districts. “I can’t imagine what it’s like for the public to comment,” he said. — The Indiana Citizen. 

Whitney Downard of CNHI Indiana, Tyler Fenwick of the Indianapolis Recorder and Haley Pritchett of contributed reporting through The Indiana Citizen redistricting reporting project, which was organized with assistance from the Hoosier State Press Association.

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