Redistricting is not exactly a barn burner issue among voters, yet it
goes to the heart of our democratic form of government. A few people
feel strongly enough to take action when they think it's not done
Last week, a plan setting new boundaries that was adopted May 28 by
the St. Louis County Board was challenged by three lawsuits filed in 6th
Judicial District Court.
County commissioners said they wanted to keep historical boundaries
intact as much as possible, but those who oppose the decision say the
populations of those districts vary too much. John Lukan, one of the
court petitioners, calls it "gerrymandering."
At issue is the basic one-person, one-vote principle.
Two residents who were once county commissioner candidates, Jim
Hofsommer of Colvin Township and Lukan of Gnesen Township, representing
the watchdog Citizens Research Council, filed suits against the County
Board. District 2 Commissioner Joanne Fay also sued the County Board.
After the census is taken every 10 years, state and local governments
redraw their elective districts to keep representation as equal as
possible. In St. Louis County it's a difficult job because population is
concentrated in the Duluth area and other areas are sparsely populated.
This time, townships bordering Duluth were St. Louis County's growth
areas. Most of them are in District 5 where Peg Sweeney is the
Commissioner district boundaries can make a big difference to
townships, which rely more heavily than cities on some county services,
such as law enforcement. When boundaries change, officials who have
traditionally worked with one commissioner -- and other communities in
their area -- might be forced to deal with a different commissioner and
ally with other townships.
Several commissioners made it clear at the May 28 meeting that
keeping communities with similar concerns together was a high priority.
Sixth District Commissioner Paul Plesha, for example, wanted Biwabik,
Biwabik Township and McKinley kept in his district.
Furthermore, some constituents who want to talk with their
commissioner think they're likely to be inconvenienced by district
Charlene Raihala of Colvin Township on the Iron Range is unhappy that
her township is being moved out of Plesha's district, into District 4,
whose commissioner, Mike Forsman, is in Ely. Plesha's office is in
Virginia; Ely is a far longer drive. Raihala shops in Virginia or
Duluth, 40 miles south of her home, and could stop to do her county
business either place, she said.
"We never go to Ely for anything," Raihala said. "I'd
rather go to Duluth than to Ely."
But what concerns Fay, Hofsommer and Lukan is how much voice each
resident will have. If, as in the plan adopted by the board, one
district has substantially more people than others, any one vote will be
less influential of the outcome than the vote of a person in a smaller
The U.S. Supreme Court allows only small disparities in district
sizes, setting the threshold at 10 percent deviation among legislative
districts. The court has not ruled on county redistricting.
But state law, according to Assistant County Attorney Shaun Floerke,
could allow one district to exceed that average by slightly less than 10
percent and fall short of that average by a little less than 10 percent.
In other words, it could result in a 20 percent deviation.
Floerke, in an April 26 memo, recommended keeping the new districts
as equal as possible, allowing less than 10 percent deviation.
The new District 5 is 9.73 percent larger than the ideal district
average while District 4 is 8.45 percent smaller. It is that large
difference that concerns the court petitioners. Other districts vary
from 4 percent higher to 5 percent lower than that average.
Fay noted last week that 10 years from now, the growth townships
outside Duluth will be even larger and that District 5 will be far
larger that it is now.
The new plan gives District 5, Sweeney's district, about 31,433
residents (and about 600 more if tallying federal prisoners who were
accidentally labeled as Duluth residents in the original census
numbers). District 4, the smallest district, has about 26,200 people,
more than 5,000 short of District 5. The ideal district average is about
According to the Secretary of State's office, if a district's size
varies more than 5 percent from the average, commissioners must face the
voters in the first general election after the redistricting. The new
plan will not force an election in Sweeney's district.
Minnesota counties are seeing more debate over redistricting plans
this year than in the past, said James Mulder, executive director of the
Association of Minnesota Counties. One of the reasons, he said, is the
use of computers to redraw maps has made it much easier to come up with
alternatives. Even after the 1990 census the maps were drawn by hand, he
"Now you can do it in minutes," he said. "Before, it
was very difficult to identify an option that would have worked."
In Stearns County, which includes St. Cloud, commissioners disagreed
about the drawing of boundaries, but no lawsuit resulted, County
Administrator George Rindelaub said.
Last week's suits could mean St. Louis County will pave the way for
future county redistricting statewide. A few challenges to county
reapportionment came in the 1940s, but other than that, there's little
precedent, Floerke said.
What happens next ultimately will be decided by Judge Terry
Hallenbeck. He has four alternatives:
• Leave the districts the way
commissioners approved them.
• Redraw the boundaries.
• Send the matter back to the
County Board to revise.
• Appoint a commission to draw
The county attorney's office, which will represent the County Board
in court, is trying to decide how to respond, Floerke said.
JANE BRISSETT covers St. Louis County and
nonprofits. She can be reached weekdays at (218) 720-4161, (800)
456-8282 or bye-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org