In a previous report, NET News told you about state lawmakers undertaking the task of redistricting. It's the process of redrawing boundary lines for various districts of public office. Every ten years, a year or two after each census, states are required to redraw the lines to ensure citizens are represented equally by elected officials. Goals in the process are maintaining communities of interest, not moving an office holder out of their district and abiding by elements of the Voting Rights Act. In today's Signature story, Perry Stoner looks at the two parts of the process likely to get the most attention in Nebraska, the state legislature and the United States Congress.
State lawmakers are preparing to redraw district boundaries.
By Perry Stoner
Every ten years, a year or two after each census, states are required to redraw the lines to ensure citizens are represented equally by elected officials. Goals in the process are maintaining communities of interest, not moving an office holder out of their district and abiding by elements of the Voting Rights Act. There are two parts of the process likely to get the most attention in Nebraska, the state legislature and the United States Congress.
Every ten years, the legislature selects a committee of its members to make up the Redistricting Committee. The Chair this time around is Chris Langemeier. The Schuyler lawmaker intends to get all 49 lawmakers involved early. He says they can help the committee identify communities of interest when redrawing lines for the legislative districts.
"We can tell them whether we think it's gonna get bigger or we think it's gonna get smaller. We're gonna give each senator that map and we're gonna ask them to tell us since they know their district. If your district's gonna get larger, which way do you think it should go and if your district's gonna get smaller, which end should come off and go to another district. And get the feedback from all 49 senators to help craft what that new district should look like."
The committee is waiting for updated census numbers to guide its decisions. Because of population shift, the Unicameral will likely lose one district or maybe two from rural areas and become a more urban body. But Langemeier doesn't necessarily think that means rural interests will be lost in future Unicamerals.
"I've been in this body seven years and one of the senior most members currently in the body. And you know, I think that rural urban divide is not as big as many people would like to play it out. The reality is everybody in the body is looking out for the state of Nebraska. Yes, you represent a district, but you're all a state senator. And so, it's more incumbent upon the rural senators, which I am probably considered one of, even though my district goes into western Douglas County. I think it's pressing on us to Number one, to understand the issues in the urban areas as well as they need to understand the issues in the rural area. And that's our job. As we work together, it's our job to communicate with each other and educate each other. And so, as long as the communication stays, I think you're gonna have good representation for all Nebraskans."
Also likely to get a lot of attention is remaking the boundaries for the three districts of the United States Congress. Early census numbers point to the Omaha metro area, District Two, becoming geographically smaller. Bounded by the state line to the east, that means the north, south or west side of the district could be trimmed to join the first district. Omaha Senator Heath Mello is serving on the committee. His state legislative district includes Douglas and Sarpy county residents on Omaha's south side.
"Well, without seeing the Census data yet, broken down by the current congressional district boundaries, I think most people in the greater metropolitan area know that congressional districts will change, no matter anyway you look at it because of population shifts. How they change, where they change, that will be I think up for debate within the redistricting committee and that'll up for debate on the legislative floor.
"But once again, it's those communities of like interest I think that are pretty critical and pretty key in regards to as we move forward with congressional redistricting more than anything else, is that you want to keep those communities of like interest together, which is a policy the state has had for a number of years. So as long as we continue to keep that as I'd say a foundational aspect of the congressional redistricting, you'll see tweaks here and there within the congressional district boundaries. But I think as long as they stay in line with the communities of interest, we won't see I think some dramatic changes, so to speak."
The current boundaries for Nebraska's U.S. Congressional districts.
Senator Bill Avery from Lincoln doesn't see the change to the Second district occurring on Omaha's north side.
"I want to make sure that we keep very, very close attention to the Voting Rights Act, which does protect minority communities and make sure that those minority communities have a reasonable opportunity to elect the person of their choice.
"I don't see any plan succeeding that would split the Omaha North Omaha precincts. I just don't see that happening. There is some talk that maybe Offutt might have to move into the First District. It's probably true that the Second District will become more democratic than it is right now. There'll be more Democrats in a compact and contiguous district. I don't know that yet because I haven't seen the final numbers, but that's a real possibility I think."
Decreasing the size of the Omaha area district creates a ripple effect. Senator Langemeier speculates the second district will wrap around Omaha and the state's vast third district, one that already extends from all four of Nebraska's borders, will get larger too as a result.
Members of the legislature's 2011 Redistricting Committee: Sen. Chris Langemeier, Chairperson Sen. Bill Avery Sen. Danielle Conrad Sen. Annette Dubas Sen. Deb Fischer Sen. Scott Lautenbaugh Sen. Heath Mello Sen. John Nelson
Watch a report on redistricting in Nebraska ten years ago from the archives of NET's Statewide: