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Dakota Midday: Indepth Look At Amendment T

Lee Strubinger

In November voters get a chance to decide on Amendment T.  It establishes an independent commission to draw legislative districts.

The state legislature currently redraws the districts every ten years.   Amendment T proponents says that creates a conflict of interest and leads to gerrymandering. Opponents of the amendment say districts are already drawn fairly.

If you’re looking for an earful on how legislative districts are drawn in the state.. former State Senator Frank Kloucek will oblige.

I’m on a ride with Kloucek. We’re driving to the northern most boundary of state legislative district 19, where Hanson County meets Miner County. Following the 2010 census, this legislative district was expanded to include Hanson and McCook counties, two counties Kloucek had never campaigned in before.

We arrive in a small town that’s split by county and also by legislative district…

Standing here in Epiphany South Dakota. I have state legislative district 19 to my left, next to the Epiphany Catholic Church. To my right is State Legislative District 8 and the Coonhunter Inn. Epiphany is a town of about 35 people. Half of it was added to State Legislative District 19 in 2011, when the districts changed after the 2010 census.

“Jesus, what a deal,” Kloucek says.

Back at the Spruce Street Café in Mitchell, Kloucek unfolds a map of his former legislative district.

“They took away Avon and Springfield, which was my key ‘Republicans For Kloucek’ area. They just took it right away and all these people voted for me year after year. [It was] primarily to get me out of office.”

By adding Hanson and McCook counties, Kloucek contends he was gerrymandered out of his seat.

But -- Kloucek’s opponent in the 2012 race disagrees.

“A lot of it had to do was the aggressiveness of our supporters. We had people who just… worked hard.”

Senator Bill VanGerpen says he also opposed how district 19 was redrawn, but started a door to door campaign in the new counties that were added.

VanGerpen says he would have won the seat regardless of how the district changed in 2011. He says he’s not convinced that Amendment T will improve redistricting. He says lawmakers have more insight into what’s happening with the state.

“And if you bring on an outside group to redistrict, there’s probably issues there that they’re not aware of. I think the legislators are probably more enlightened as to the issues in the state and how they might affect being fair to everyone in the state,” VanGerpen says.

VanGerpen says lawmakers need to keep counties in tact as best as possible.

Those opposing Amendment T say the current system works well and that the change sets up an independent commission to solve a problem that isn’t there. Jason Ravnsborg is with the group “No on T.” He says he’s concerned about the cost associated with setting up the commission in the first place.

“I’ve talked to a number of voters and this is so far down the list, if it’s even on their list, of it being a problem," Ravnsborg says. "I haven’t talked to hardly any legislator that says constituents have brought this up as being a problem. Obviously we have much more important problems, such as the economy, education, roads and different things in the legislature. As I said in the beginning, it seems to be a problem in search of a constitutional amendment to our constitution.”

Ravnsborg says if voters are concerned about how districts are drawn, they can vote their lawmakers out of office. Since the redistricting commission is by appointment, the voters won’t have a say in who draws the maps.

But Proponents of Amendment T counter that it gets rid of alleged gerrymandering. The proposal sets up a 9-member bi-partisan group—three of each Republicans, Democrats and Independents. Each member must have been registered as such for three years, and not served in the legislature for three years prior or after. The task of the commission is to draw contiguous legislative districts based on neighborhoods, counties and natural boundaries.

Matt Sibley is with the South Dakota Farmers Union. He says Amendment T sets up a balanced committee to draw legislative maps.

“That’s not leaning one way or another, giving one party an advantage or a leg up," Sibley says. "These individuals are not politicians, they’re not legislators, they’re individuals who haven’t served in public office three years before or after being on that committee. We have the safeguards within the language that says you can’t look at political party identification, you can’t look at incumbency. So, those types of safeguards, a balanced committee, everything in Amendment T is meant to make it as neutral as possible, as non-partisan as can be practical.”

Sibley says voters should pick their legislators, not the other way around.  He argues whichever party is in control of the legislature after a census is taken decides basically decides how districts are drawn.  

The South Dakota Farmers Union is behind Amendment T, while the state GOP strongly opposes the measure.

It’s true that if the amendment passes, the way state legislative district lines are drawn will change. There’s a chance the political landscape in South Dakota could also change. By how much? As always, that’s up to the voters…

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