By Janet Williams and Bill Theobald
The Indiana Citizen
Indiana House Republicans have tapped the architect of the GOP’s national redistricting strategy to advise them as they redraw the state’s congressional and legislative maps—the latest sign that their playbook in 2021 will follow the one that in 2011 set the stage for a decade of overwhelming legislative control.
Jason Torchinsky is the senior advisor and general counsel to the National Republican Redistricting Trust, founded to coordinate the party’s efforts across the country. Torchinsky represents a related group called Fair Lines America, which opposes independent redistricting commissions.
Erin Wittern, spokesperson for the House Republican Caucus, said in response to written questions from The Indiana Citizen that Torchinsky would be working with the caucus on the new maps but did not expand on his role, what he would be paid or who would foot the bill.
Torchinsky declined to comment. He is a contributor to the conservative Federalist Society website; a partner with the Washington D.C.-area law firm Holtzman Vogel Baran Torchinsky & Josefiak; and has vigorously fought Democratic efforts to challenge maps drawn by Republicans.
Torchinsky also has represented Tea Party groups and a variety of Republican political organizations through the years. His firm has been paid nearly $240,000 by the National Senatorial Campaign Committee in the first half of 2021, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.
The involvement of a national party adviser in the state’s redistricting is one example of how Indiana Republicans are following the same strategy that resulted a decade ago in what have been called some of the nation’s most politically skewed state legislative and congressional districts.
In what so far is a similar game plan for the once-every-decade redrawing of state legislative and congressional district boundaries, GOP leaders have announced a statewide series of public hearings starting Friday to receive public input on the map-drawing process.
The hearings are being touted—as similar hearings were in 2011—as evidence that the redistricting process is transparent, though as in 2011, the hearings will be held before the proposed maps are released.
No public hearings are planned for after the GOP maps are released, though there will be opportunities for Hoosiers to testify before the House and Senate elections committees as the maps move toward final adoption.
The GOP-drawn maps are scheduled to move quickly through the Indiana General Assembly within weeks of their release, with the House expected to act first the week of Sept. 20 and the Indiana Senate the following week.
In 2011, only eight days elapsed from the time the GOP maps were released and the House approved them. The state Senate acted the following week.
Even though this year’s redistricting playbook might read like it’s still 2011, a new cast of characters is running the show for the Republicans, who because of their continuing supermajorities in both chambers can approve maps with zero input from Democrats.
But this time, public awareness of the potential impact of redistricting is higher and advocates for nonpartisan map-drawing, such as All In For Democracy, are better organized.
“The cat is out of the bag, and the public expects something different this time,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause of Indiana, a key player in the formation of the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission, a “multipartisan” group that held its own series of public hearings on redistricting and plans to offer an alternative to the maps proposed by legislators. (The commission is unrelated to The Indiana Citizen, the nonpartisan online news organization.)
State Sen. Karen Tallian of Portage, one of only 11 Democrats in the Senate, is skeptical that greater public pressure will make much difference.
“It’s highly unlikely that a group, any group, in power is going to willingly give it up,” said Tallian, who believes that Republicans already have a good idea of what the new congressional and legislative maps will look like.
“This is the show,’’ she said of the planned hearings. “It’s a show that says, ‘Oh, we went out and listened.’ But they’re not doing it after we have maps available,” she said.
Three days of legislative hearings during the coming week will be led by two newcomers to the redistricting process.
Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, elected in a red wave in 2010, chairs the Elections and Apportionment Committee in the House, and Sen. Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, first elected in 2014, leads the Senate Elections Committee, which he took over earlier this year. Ford was one of three authors of Senate Bill 159 in 2018 to create a nonpartisan commission to draw legislative district boundaries. The bill died without a hearing in the Senate Elections Committee.
The two relatively new top leaders in the General Assembly, Senate President Pro Tempore Rodric Bray, R-Martinsville and House Speaker Todd Huston, R-Fishers, were first elected to office in 2012, the first election after the last set of legislative maps were drawn by the Republican majority. Rep. Greg Steuerwald, R-Avon, first elected in 2006, serves as majority caucus chair and is also expected to have a leadership role in the redistricting process.
Among the other Republicans expected to be part of the map-drawing process are Rep. Alan Morrison of Brazil and Sens. Gregory Walker of Columbus and Erin Houchin of Salem, who earlier this year authored Senate Bill 353, whose restrictions on registration and voting were likened to controversial legislation in Georgia; the bill died before the session recessed, but Houchin has said she plans to revive it in 2022.
Also playing key roles throughout the process will be Republican legislative staff, led by Jeff Papa, chief of staff and general counsel in the Senate, and Tyler Campbell, chief of staff in the House, as well as state GOP Chair Kyle Hupfer.
Walker, involved for the first time in redistricting, said he’s anxious to hear from Hoosiers about what’s important to them as the new maps are drawn. He is joining the legislative listening tours scheduled for Aug. 6, 7 and 11.
“There are just an unlimited number of ways one can draw a map,” he said. “For every district line that is drawn, it has a consequence on all other districts, and there’s no single right way to do that.”
Walker, who served as chair of the Elections Committee from 2015 to 2020, said one way might be to consider the boundary lines of school districts when drawing legislative boundaries. “I have found that parents and families affiliate with their local school very closely and consider themselves a community more than a township line,” he added.
Neither Wesco, Ford, Morrison nor Houchin returned calls from The Indiana Citizen seeking comment on how they expected the redistricting process to proceed, nor did the communications staffs for the Senate or House respond to requests for interviews with Bray and Huston.
Gov. Eric Holcomb’s press secretary, Erin Murphy, referred questions about whether the governor has a staff member working on redistricting to the legislature. Holcomb, a Republican, is responsible for signing into law the final version of the maps passed by the General Assembly.
Each caucus has been allocated $54,000 for the map-drawing process, which will use software provided by Citygate GIS of Annapolis, Maryland. The business describes itself as providing nonpartisan consulting and software tools that include Autobound Desktop, its tool for creating state legislative and congressional boundaries.
The leaders of legislative Democrats, who will attempt to make their voices heard from an even weaker position than they held in 2011, include House minority leader Phil GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, and Senate minority leader Greg Taylor, D-Indianapolis.
Sen. J.D. Ford of Indianapolis is the ranking Democrat on the Senate Elections Committee, while Tonya Pfaff of Terre Haute is the top Democrat on the House Elections and Apportionment Committee.
Other key Democrats include Rep. Cherrish Pryor, a member of caucus leadership, the Black Legislative Caucus and the Elections and Apportionment Committee; and Sen. Fady Qaddoura, the only other Democrat on the Senate Elections Committee.
Taylor said Democrats are using political consultant and former state party executive director Tim Henderson to help them with map drawing. Henderson played the same role in 2011. Henderson will be paid out of the allotment of state money, Taylor said.
In an interview with The Indiana Citizen, GiaQuinta called the process outlined by GOP leaders a “sham” and “outrageous.” The next day, GiaQuinta released a letter he had sent to GOP leaders demanding that public hearings be held after the GOP maps are released.
“Without these additional hearings, the redistricting process will not have meaningful public input,” GiaQuinta wrote.
GiaQuinta declined to say whether Democrats are planning to hire consultants to help them draw their own maps and would not say whether the party would consider legal action to challenge the GOP-drawn maps.
Vaughn of Common Cause Indiana said she worries that Democrats will try to rely on litigation to fix the map, which she fears would not be successful. Recent decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court make a successful federal court challenge almost impossible. A successful appeal under state law that would presumably land in the Indiana Supreme Court is considered as likely as winning the lottery.
In addition to Vaughn’s group, which created the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission to draw attention to the importance of the map-drawing process, Women4Change Indiana, formed in 2016, has made nonpartisan redistricting a centerpiece of its advocacy.
The group paid Christopher Warshaw, a George Washington University political science professor, to conduct a first-ever analysis of Indiana’s 2011 redistricting maps. The study found Indiana’s maps were more biased toward Republicans than 95% of all U.S. districting plans (for which data is available) that have been approved over the past half century.
As a political scientist, Warshaw had studied the impact of gerrymandering on states such as Wisconsin and Michigan but looked closely at Indiana’s maps for the first time this year for Women4Change.
“I really didn’t have a strong view of what I was likely to find,” he said, adding he was surprised to see such a strong pro-Republican bias in the maps. “In contrast, you actually find that historically, Indiana has had really balanced congressional maps.” He noted that in the 2010 congressional elections where Republicans won control of Congress in a red wave, Democrats in Indiana won three out of nine seats compared to the two they hold today.
Through the 2010s, Republicans have held a supermajority in both chambers of the General Assembly. Today, Republicans control 71 of 100 seats in the House and 39 of 50 seats in the Senate.
As a result, it becomes more difficult for voters to hold their elected officials accountable for their actions, Warshaw said.
“In general, what you want to do to encourage accountability is you want to empower swing voters and draw districts that are competitive enough that politicians could plausibly lose reelection,” he said.
Qaddoura, who ousted a Republican incumbent in 2020 after running on the need for redistricting to be done by an independent commission, said the state’s gerrymandered districts have contributed to policy extremes such as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2015.
“Whatever policy issue you care about, you will not see us make progress because we have an imbalance of political power in Indiana,” Qaddoura said.
What role, if any, that major Indiana-based companies and business organizations play in the map-drawing process remains one of the wildcards.
Stung by the flood of negative national publicity generated by RFRA, some business leaders have taken a more aggressive role in the legislative arena. Critical comments by an Eli Lilly & Co. executive at a hearing on Houchin’s Senate Bill 353 are credited by some with sidelining the legislation.
A spokeswoman for the Indiana Manufacturers Association said the group currently had no comment on the redistricting issue. Jeff Brantley, senior vice president for political affairs and foundation for the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, said his organization will analyze the new maps when they’re drawn and share the results with members as it did in 2011. The analysis was not made public a decade ago.
Also unclear is how the public hearings held in the spring by the Indiana Citizens Redistricting Commission will affect the map drawing process. The panel’s hearings in each of the state’s nine congressional districts brought out nearly 900 people to comment on the criteria they believe is important in redistricting.
Sen. J.D. Ford, the Indianapolis Democrat on the Senate Elections Committee, said the supermajorities that Republicans hold in the state House and Senate, along with the governor’s mansion, leave Democrats with few strategic options. They don’t even have enough members to do what Texas Democrats did to stop voting reform legislation—leaving the state to deny the legislature enough members to go into session.
“Our biggest ammo is the public,” Ford said.
As part of the process, Hoosiers will have several opportunities to draw their own maps and submit them for consideration at locations set up around Indiana by lawmakers or through the Common Cause alliance.
Walker, a member of the GOP caucus working on the new maps, said he is less interested in seeing maps drawn by others than he is in understanding the criteria Hoosiers use to create their own.
“What’s the basis upon which you said these are the right lines?” Walker said, explaining that will help him understand the criteria Hoosiers prioritize.
Because the GOP controls both chambers, the Republican-drawn maps will be the ones that are introduced through the legislative process.
The elections committees in the House and Senate will hold hearings on the legislation, at which time the public will be given a chance to testify. After the committee votes, the new maps will advance to the full House and Senate for action before going to the governor for his signature.
Democrats and the public have limited power to influence the drawing of the maps, Warshaw said, adding that short of having a divided government with the legislature and governor’s office representing different parties to check the power of each other, transparency is the best way to ensure maps that are more fairly drawn.
“Maybe try to embarrass the state legislators with how extreme the gerrymanders are and maybe give voters more information to hold them (legislators) accountable, Warshaw said. “Admittedly, I think that’s going to be a weak check.”
Before the final vote, Women4Change has contracted with Warshaw to analyze the maps for evidence of gerrymandering. The question is whether his report or the input of Hoosiers through public hearings or testimony before the elections committees will make a difference in the final outcome.
This article was published by TheStatehouseFile.com through a partnership with The Indiana Citizen (indianacitizen.org), a nonpartisan, nonprofit platform dedicated to increasing the number of informed, engaged Hoosier citizens.
Janet Williams recently retired as executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com at Franklin College. She formerly worked in corporate communications for Cummins and as a reporter and editor at The Indianapolis Star.
Bill Theobald is a veteran Washington, D.C.-based journalist who most recently worked in the USA TODAY Washington Bureau and for the nonprofit news website The Fulcrum, which focuses on democracy reform efforts. He was a reporter and editor for The Indianapolis Star from 1990 to 2005.