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Redistricting ruling could prompt Nebraska ballot initiative
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Redistricting ruling could prompt Nebraska ballot initiative

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Last week's U.S. Supreme Court decision to stand aside on the question of partisan legislative redistricting conceivably could impact upcoming decisions in the Nebraska Legislature that determine the division of rural-urban power and prompt a 2020 ballot initiative.

All of that could be part of the fallout from the 5-4 decision in which the court's majority said partisan gerrymandering designed to benefit a political party or its candidates is not an issue to be resolved in the federal courts.

"The decision opened the door to allow states to put those districts together in the manner they see fit," David Drozd, research coordinator for the Center for Public Affairs Research at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said Monday.

"And it presumably could provide more of an impetus for initiative efforts to move forward now," he said.

Voters in a number of states approved ballot initiatives last year that place redistricting responsibilities in the hands of a citizens commission or enact substantial redistricting reform. 

Drozd, who has been the leading figure in the redistricting research field in the state, was asked during a telephone interview to assess the impact of the court's hands-off decision.

Current population estimates and projections in the state suggest that urban representation in the Legislature should climb from 25 of the 49 seats to 27 following the 2020 federal census.

The Lincoln-Omaha-Sarpy County metropolitan complex will represent 56 percent of the state's population when redistricting occurs in 2021, Drozd said.

But he said he can see how legislative redistricting could be fashioned to hold the urban gain to a single seat.

"The court's decision looks like it opened the door for states to put those districts together in the manner they see fit," he said.

Nebraska legislators would still need to adhere to state provisions that require districts of roughly equal population and generally contiguous boundaries. 

But the court decision also could lead to "states possibly becoming more aggressive in packing or concentrating some parties or groups into certain districts to make them less competitive," Drozd said.  

"It's likely that may happen," he said.

The accompanying fallout could be that "citizen initiative efforts to form an independent (redistricting) commission" are energized now, Drozd said.

In 2016, legislation to create a redistricting commission was vetoed by Gov. Pete Ricketts after being enacted by the Legislature on a 29-15 vote.

Although Nebraska has a unique nonpartisan Legislature, divisions on legislative issues often separate senators who are Republicans from senators who are Democrats, as well as rural and urban lawmakers. 

A second U.S. Supreme Court ruling last week that rejected the Trump administration's rationale for adding a U.S. citizenship question to the 2020 census was important to Nebraska in terms of assuring an accurate count that impacts federal funding assistance, as well as representation, Drozd said.

"Most people believe there would be more hesitancy to fill out the form," he said. "There would be a little more concern about immigration enforcement (and) it would drive up the undercount."

An undercount also could impact the ability to fashion legislative districts that accurately reflect comparable population figures and even impact congressional representation. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7248 or dwalton@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSDon.

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