Every ten years, redistricting lays the groundwork for political representation. Common Cause Nebraska Executive Director Gavin Geis shares his thoughts on the biggest takeaways from the most recent redistricting cycle in Nebraska.
There are a few takeaways from redistricting. I'll give you a positive one to start with. If we look at Omaha and Grand Island, those are two areas where thankfully because of people getting involved, because activists showed up, because organizations were paying attention, we were actually able to change [maps] as a coalition, as Nebraska-wide nonprofit sector, working to make better, more representative maps. We were able to change their initial maps, first with the second congressional district. That idea of splitting Omaha was luckily tabled. We didn't end up with the perfect map for that district but we did end up with something better than what was proposed from the start, and that's because people got involved.
In Grand Island, local activists showed up to the hearing and were able to influence the way those maps were drawn to include more minority communities and make sure that everyone was incorporated that should be represented by a Grand Island district. So without people actually showing up, those would have just been stuck the way they were and we would have ended up with two bad maps. Thankfully we have those two good examples of why it matters that people get engaged, why it matters that people show up and testify.
The negative takeaways are, you know, the usual, what we would expect when it comes to negative takeaways on redistricting. It was a partisan process. My big takeaway from the whole thing is that the legislature shouldn't be in charge, unfortunately. We have to keep up the fight to get an independent commission for Nebraska that will serve Nebraskans better. But then I think there were some good positives. I think it's easy to say this was one of the most engaged redistricting processes in Nebraska's history. That’s because nonprofits got involved, because the grassroots organizations were there and ready for it. Citizen involvement matters and this redistricting process shows that more than others.
Tactics-wise, the first step was starting a conversation with organizations working on this. Coalition building in this regard was huge. It meant we could actually react and get things accomplished together. None of that existed in previous redistricting cycles. It was fantastic. We also engaged people where they were through our community mapping events. Those were basically half educational and half mapping your own community, going through what redistricting was and helping them see how maps were actually drawn by legislators by drawing their own community. I think meeting with neighborhood organizations was a good step in this regard. They're already geographically located. They have said, "we are a community and we self identify." Transitioning that to redistricting was fairly straightforward. We weren't asking people from across a city to come together but from one neighborhood.
One big principle of redistricting is that the process has to be open and it has to be accountable to the public. Throughout the process, we need public access to the legislature, their decisions, and their discussions along the way. Unfortunately, the legislature was a mixed bag at the end of the day on this. They had public hearings and meetings but for the most part, the maps got drawn behind the scenes and we don't know what went into those discussions. I think it's easy to make the connection between a lack of access and then our inability as advocates to respond quickly on what was really a tight timeframe. That's why we kind of strive for the ideal of completely open, completely accountable redistricting.
The next principle I will point out is nonpartisanship. At the end of the day, redistricting should be a process that doesn't take into account partisanship. It shouldn't be about how one party wins their next elections, how they control the legislature, or even about how one legislator can win their next election in this new district. It should literally just be about the communities, about drawing representative, fair districts that represent the people who live there. Unfortunately, again, partisanship bled into the process and throughout we saw legislators openly discussing how they were going to win or how this was going to hurt their standing in their reelection bids. Nonpartisanship should be an enshrined value in the redistricting process.
Lastly, I want to point towards typically disenfranchised, marginalized groups. We are talking about what are normally minority communities, whether that's Black communities, Latino communities, Native American communities. Redistricting should take into account the presence of those groups, that they do have a common interest, and make sure that the redistricting process doesn't dilute their vote and doesn't make it harder for them to select their candidate. Luckily in Nebraska, we did see this in a couple of situations. I talked about Grand Island where there was direct consideration of the Latino and immigrant populations in that community, making sure they were integrated into the final maps, not cut apart. We also saw this in two northeast Nebraska districts that formerly were two districts that split up a Native American community. This time around, they were joined together into a single district. Protecting those communities of interest, specifically when we're talking about people who are cut out of the political process, must be part of the redistricting process.
Redistricting matters to me because voting is such a bedrock of any democratic system. Gerrymandering is in many ways a form of voter fraud, of stealing elections, that cuts the voter out of the equation and does it from the legislative governing level. It creates systems that disenfranchise voters, yes, but also pre-decides the outcomes of elections. You could undermine an entire election process with bad maps. We have to start from maps that are fairly drawn and not partisan. As a democracy advocate, redistricting is a bedrock. It's where we have to start if we want to get into fair and free elections. You can't ignore redistricting and then hope to have an outcome in elections that is representative of the people.