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Nebraska's redistricting maps finalized for now, but Unicameral's methods still questioned

Sen. Hunt seeks an independent commission for next redistricting session
Posted at 7:16 PM, Jan 28, 2022
and last updated 2022-01-30 16:23:12-05

LINCOLN, Neb. (KMTV) — It wasn't that long ago when the Nebraska Legislature tussled over redistricting.

The process over the last two decades has been messy. Senators fighting to maintain power in rural Nebraska, others pointing to population changes to bring more representation to Omaha and Lincoln.

“I think we have some very painful experiences,” said Danielle Conrad, a former state senator who now leads the ACLU of Nebraska.

Redistricting was so contentious in 2021 that the legislature almost left their special session and threatened to start over.

But eventually, the legislature successfully finalized maps that will be used for elections from this year through the 2030 midterms.

Nebraska Legislative Districts 2021
Map of the Nebraska Legislative Districts 2021
Congressional Representative Map
Congressional Representative Map

But the maps that passed have drawn the attention of mathematician Kristie Pfabe.

“I’ve always been interested in the connection between math and civic life,” said Pfabe.

Phabe is chair of the Math and Computer Science Department at Nebraska Wesleyan.

She conducted a statistical analysis of the maps and discovered a wide range of issues.

For the legislative map, she color-coded each district by how much each district was over, and under-represented.

“The color-coded maps on the graphs give a holistic picture so you can really see a pattern,” said Pfabe.

What she found was the rural districts, which are considerably more Republican, had fewer state residents as a whole than urban districts, which is where most of the state’s Democrats live.

That means voters in those rural, Republican districts have more power per vote than the many Democratic voters in the cities like Lincoln and Omaha.

“The people that are proposing maps should be looking at Nebraska as a whole and not looking how it’s going to preference a district,” said Pfabe.

Senators also drew congressional maps to seemingly ensure Rep. Don Bacon can run again for his seat. The district line runs blocks away from where he is constructing a new house.

With these maps, and possible political considerations in mind, Sen. Megan Hunt is already looking at the next time the Unicameral redistricts in 2031.

“Instead of kicking the can and waiting another 7, 8, 9, 10 years to decide if we’re going to do anything different about redistricting,” said Hunt.

Hunt, an Omaha senator who represents one of the districts with the most Democrats in the state, wants to take the power of redistricting out of the hands of politicians.

She proposed a constitutional amendment to the executive board Thursday to create an independent redistricting commission.

“In principle, elected officials should not be drawing their own maps,” said Hunt.

Hunt proposes that the legislature pick nine politically-split members of an independent commission who would create maps to be approved by the Unicameral.

The appointment of the commission members would be subjected to a variety of rules to avoid conflicts of interest. That includes bans on elected officials and their families, as well as lobbyists, from being in the pool of candidates for the commission.

A redistricting commission is exactly the solution Phabe is seeking for her math problem. In fact, she testified at the committee hearing hours after interviewing with 3 News Now.

She believes it’s better to have those that draw the map representative of the entire state, rather than representative of just a few individual districts.

“They are less likely to have excessive bias towards a particular district,” said Pfabe.

Sen. Suzanne Geist sat on the redistricting committee last year and explained that it wasn’t easy on her.

Despite stresses and frustrations, she doesn’t want to see changes.

“I frankly like the way that it’s done now,” said Geist.

She, along with Speaker of the Legislature Mike Hilgers, who are both Republicans, worry about accountability.

“You can be re-elected, you can be kicked out of office and at least there’s some accountability,” said Hilgers in the committee hearing on the constitutional amendment.

Geist also says that her 48 colleagues were territorial with their districts.

“I think that’s a positive, really,” Geist said.

She says they’re essentially experts on their districts who have intimate relationships with it, and the body as a whole can make informed decisions.

“People know where their districts are. They know the mood of that district, they know how people in those districts vote and on what subjects,” said Geist.

If the legislature ultimately approves an independent commission for redistricting, they need to rewrite the constitution, as current state law only allows the Unicameral to create maps.

Therefore, the people would vote on whether they want to take redistricting out of the hands of the legislature.

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