Attorneys spent hours in a courtroom on Tuesday poring over maps of Minnesota, debating issues as sweeping as how people of color can participate in government to the intricacies of whether the path carved by the Elk River should divide communities in central Minnesota.
A five-judge panel is now considering those arguments in a case asking the courts to intervene and create the state’s new redistricting maps. Tuesday’s hearing was the final attempt from groups to influence the panel, which will now get to work in drawing what are likely to become the state’s congressional and legislative maps for the next decade.
“To make sure every person’s vote counts the same, we go through this process every 10 years,” said Brian Dillon, an attorney representing plaintiffs in the case from communities of color. “The panel’s job is to come up with new district boundaries that reflect where Minnesota’s population is today. Not 10 years ago, or 10 years before that, but today.”
The courts have been handling the job of drawing the political maps for the past five decades, when state lawmakers couldn’t agree to plans on their own. That’s expected to happen again this cycle, with Minnesota’s divided Legislature far from agreement on a single set of maps and with limited time to do so before a Feb. 15 deadline.
It’s a task required by the U.S. Constitution every decade after the census count to redistribute the population evenly among political districts. The stakes are high for communities navigating the new lines, as well as for the state’s political parties, with redrawn boundaries scrambling election dynamics in districts for Congress and the state Legislature for a decade.
The four main parties in the case include representatives of communities of color, groups with ties to the state’s two main political parties and another group led by citizen redistricting and elections experts that first asked the courts to intervene.
On Tuesday, each defended their own redistricting plans to the judges while picking apart what they argued were inadequacies in the other plans.
“We’re focused less on statistics and more about what makes sense on the ground for the peoples and communities of this state,” argued Adam Sienkowski, an attorney representing a group that includes a former Senate redistricting staffer and longtime Ramsey County elections supervisor.
They pointed to examples such as not dividing neighborhoods like Cedar-Riverside in Minneapolis, home to a large Somali community, while other maps did. Sienkowski criticized maps from groups representing the political parties as drawn for partisan advantage, something the court said it didn’t want taken into consideration.
But the parties defended their maps based on other redistricting principles, such as keeping counties, cities, towns and townships as whole as possible. Elizabeth Brama, an attorney representing the Republican-aligned group, argued that its maps measure up best in that regard.
“Providing access to voting is what redistricting is really about,” she said, adding that splitting up towns makes for confusing election administration. “Counties, cities and townships are some of the most significant communities of interest.”
She was critical of other proposed maps for creating massive districts in rural Minnesota that stretch from one border to another. Other maps lump suburban and exurban areas into what should be purely rural districts, she argued.
But attorneys representing Democratic plaintiffs said they adhered the closest to redistricting principles laid out by the court, and in doing so, drew the maps that are the most compact and keep people with similar interests together.
“There is no perfect district, there is no perfect plan. I think that’s one of the few points on which all of the parties can agree,” said David Zoll, one of the attorneys representing the DFL plaintiffs. “You have to step back and look at the full picture. How were the decisions made? What were the guiding principles, and which plan best embraces all of the panel’s principles within those decisions?”
Attorneys representing communities of color argued more dramatic changes are needed to the state maps to account for the massive population growth among that demographic during the last decade.
Despite that growth, communities of color are underrepresented in Congress and the Minnesota Capitol. They argued that their maps would create more districts that empower Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) at the polls.
“Population growth over the last 10 years was driven almost entirely by minority communities,” said Dillon. “Without the BIPOC growth over the last 10 years, we would have lost our Eighth Congressional District.” Minnesota just barely held on to its eight seats in Congress in April, when the Census Bureau released its population totals for the country.
The five judges appointed by the Minnesota Supreme Court listened to the presentations but didn’t ask the attorneys questions. The oral arguments are the final public step in a monthslong series of hearings held by the courts across the state to gather input on redistricting.
The process has operated under a tight timeline after delays of critical data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Democrats in control of the Minnesota House have released a set of congressional and legislative maps. Republicans in the Senate have yet to release maps but said in a statement Tuesday that they are “moving forward with our work.”