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Group wants independent panel to draw political boundaries

Lori Walsh
Erin Royer and Arlene Brandt-Jenson notarize petitions before gathering signatures for an independent redistricting commission ballot question.

There's an effort underway to change how legislative district maps are drawn. Some people are gathering signatures for a possible constitutional amendment to create a redistricting commission that’s politically independent.

Erin Royer, a Democrat from Sioux Falls, ran for the House of Representatives and lost in 2020. She's out now collecting signatures for a ballot measure. A year ago, Royer was campaigning for office going door to door.

"I got to talk to a ton of people in District 12 face to face and I really like seeing them around town, now," Royer said. "They recognize me and say, 'hey, you came to my door to talk to me about running for office.'"

Royer lost to Republican incumbent Arch Beal by 66 votes.

House District 12 stretches from farmland just southeast of the I-29 / 229 intersection to old central Sioux Falls.

"It goes all the way up to 12th street. So, you would meet people who were concerned about traffic congestion and affordable housing," Royer said. "It goes all the way down to about 95th street in Lincoln County. So it goes all the way into the Harrisburg school district, where people were more concerned about things like their property taxes and making sure their potholes got filled in a timely manner."

Just east of District 12 is District 13. It also stretches vertically from near downtown and runs just south of 229.

Legislative districts 12 and 13.

Royer called the district boundaries odd and said she would draw them differently.

"Because the top half of District 12 and the top half of District 13 seem to have much more in common, to me," she said.

Royer said it would make more sense for one district to include more of the city of Sioux Falls to better represent those urban constituents and their issues. Then the other district could focus more on rural constituencies from the area south of the city.

That's why she's gathering signatures for an independent redistricting commission.

"The way legislative districts are drawn can decide an election even before anybody starts voting," she said.

The way legislative districts are drawn can decide an election even before anybody starts voting.
Erin Royer, former legislative candidate, Sioux Falls

As a constitutional amendment, the ballot question would create a commission of nine registered voters in South Dakota. None of them could hold public office or a political party office. No more than three members of the commission could be members of the same political party.

The commission would redistrict lines in 2023 and then 2031 and every 10 years after that. It would redraw legislative districts that state lawmakers are currently crafting.

To make it onto the ballot, supporters need about 34,000 signatures – or 10 percent of the most recent votes cast for governor. And even then, it wouldn’t be the first time South Dakota voters have considered the idea recently. In 2016, 57 percent of residents voted against an independent redistricting committee ballot question.

Republican State Senator Jim Bolin opposed an independent redistricting committee effort in 2016 and he opposes the current push.

"We've had a verdict by the people already," Bolin said. "When we engage in the process we're doing right now we're following our constitution."

Bolin sat on the redistricting committee 10 years ago and is also on the current redistricting committee.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to have non-elected officials making these decisions, rather than elected officials who are chosen by the people," he said.

Bolin said the current committee wants the legislative map to reflect the desires of South Dakotans, but that could be a challenge this year. A delay in census data is creating a time crunch for the public comment period.

“Elected officials can make very legitimate choices as to how these political lines are configured, especially when county lines are maintained,” Bolin adds.

Bolin said only three counties are split by the current district maps.

The redistricting committee is still working on the map that will determine the footprint for Sioux Falls districts. That defines how much of the area outside the city could be included in the districts. That boundary can have big implications. It could change the number of legislative districts for the greater Sioux Falls area. The current area has nine, but population growth in the last decade might push it up to 10.

However, one political scientist said drawing district maps that include surrounding exurban areas is more appropriate for sprawling metro cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul, not Sioux Falls.

Emily Wanless is a political science professor at Augustana University in Sioux Falls.

“Sioux Falls is very unique to the rest of South Dakota, in that it is the urban center," Wanless said. "But, I think the districts can be drawn without having to utilize some of the rural areas that the current maps draw in.”

If rural areas around the city are pulled in, Sioux Falls could get more legislative districts and more influence at the Capitol. However, if lawmakers set the legislative district boundary for just the urban Sioux Falls area, the city would get reduced to eight districts.

Regardless of the outcome, Wanless said the push for an independent redistricting commission is warranted.

“This is something that, throughout the country, is utilized—the redistricting process—to benefit incumbents and incumbent parties," Wanless said. "I’m not looking at this as a Republican issue or a Democrat issue. I’m looking at this as people having the opportunity to benefit themselves.”

Wanless said the current practice draws districts and populations to preserve the election outcomes for particular interests. She said an independent commission can create districts with more political competition and that encourages more participation and therefore more trust in government.

Lee Strubinger is SDPB’s Rapid City-based news and political reporter. A former reporter for Fort Lupton Press (CO) and Colorado Public Radio, Lee holds a master’s in public affairs reporting from the University of Illinois-Springfield.
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