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LWV Calls for Transparency & Accountability in St. Joseph Co’s Redistricting Process

Published on 11/11/2021
For Immediate Release: Wednesday, November 10, 2021
Media Contacts: Elizabeth Bennion (574-298-1421) and Lisa Plencner (574-532-8121)
League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area

League of Women Voters Calls for Transparency & Accountability in St. Joseph County’s Redistricting Process: Non-Partisan Civic Group Urges All Commission and Council Members to Attend Public Meeting

South Bend, Indiana – In the wake of strong public opposition to the undemocratic local redistricting process and proposed district maps for the St. Joseph County Board of Commissioners (Commissioners), and in advance of a public meeting on redistricting called by members of the St. Joseph County Council (Council), the League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area calls on all Commissioners and Council members to attend Monday’s public meeting and work together to compare the maps submitted by the public with maps proposed by Commission-selected and Council-selected, taxpayer-funded law firms. The group urges elected officials to lead the public in a discussion of the pros and cons of each map.

“We are encouraged that members of the Commission and Council have called for a public meeting. We urge them to make this meeting meaningful by giving the public a detailed agenda and providing specific maps for the public to discuss at this meeting. These maps, which should be posted in advance to the county website, and should include the maps proposed by citizens in addition to the maps proposed by the Commission and Council. Before discussing each map, the goals, criteria, and specific parameters used to generate the map should be shared with the public,” said said Lisa Plencner, Director of Voter Registration for the non-partisan League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area that serves St. Joseph County.

The Commission has, to date, failed to disclose the full list of instructions given to the law firm drawing the proposed map. The League encourages the Commission to do so, while also encouraging the Council to disclose the instructions provided to the attorneys drawing their version of the Commission map – as well as any Council maps.

Council members have stated that they were forced to hire a law firm when the Commission hired a firm instead of working with the Council to draw the maps. “We are saddened to see that this has become a battle of the law firms,” said Plencner. The League promotes full transparency and public engagement in the redistricting process at all levels of government regardless of which political party is in charge. “Over the years, the League has heard from Republican city council and county council members who believed their council was gerrymandered to underrepresent Republican voters and from Democratic state legislators who believed that state legislative districts were rigged to under-represent Democratic voters. Our answer in each case is the same. The League opposes gerrymandering by any political party at any level of government, and supports full transparency and robust public engagement in the redistricting process,” said Elizabeth Bennion, Director of Voter Services and Education of the local League.

At the November 9, 2021 public hearing on the maps proposed by the Commissioners, the Commissioners requested and received public feedback. The feedback was overwhelmingly negative. Those who spoke expressed several reasons for theiropposition; speakers alleged racial gerrymandering (by packing Black voters into one district, effectively diluting their votes); gerrymandering to protect incumbents; gerrymandering to exclude a candidate from running in his present district; and creating
poor representation for additional communities of interest, such as suburban residents and those who live in rural farming areas. Area residents also objected to the lack of opportunities for public engagement in the process. Without transparency and public deliberation, it is difficult for elected officials to address these concerns. The League urges elected officials to listen to the voices of these constituents and involve them in the process.

“The League supports a fair and transparent process with full public involvement. The President of the Commission has said that the proposed map is designed to keep communities of interest together. There is nobody better to define communities of interest than members of those communities, and yet those communities have been given no such opportunity,” said Bennion.

No plan or process was put forth as to how the Commissioners would work going forward to address public concerns before taking and a second final vote on Tuesday, November 16th. Not all commissioners explained the reason for their vote and the Commission offered no statement about what they would do between now and the final vote to take into account public feedback and challenges to the proposed district maps,” Bennion continued. “Given the concerns expressed by Democrats, Republicans, non-partisan organizations, and several leaders who serve as representatives of organizations charged with voicing the concerns of minority populations, it would be wise for the Commissioners to attend Monday’s public meeting, answer the public’s questions, and engage in public deliberation about the proposed maps – maps that will determine the state of representative government in St. Joseph County in the decade to come” added Bennion. “The League urges the Commissioners and Council to respond to the public by working cooperatively and transparently going forward to draw fair and representative districts.”

The League of Women Voters of the South Bend Area is a nonpartisan political organization that encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase understanding of major public policy issues, and influences public policy through education and advocacy. The League never endorses a political party or candidate. Membership is open to men and women of all ages. The local and national Leagues both celebrated their 100th anniversary in 2020 and, with over 800 affiliates across the country, the League is one of the nation’s most trusted organizations.