Monday, December 6, 2010

Redistricting: A Minnesota History

For some context on the coming battle over redistricting, let's take a look at the checkered past of redistricting in Minnesota, a process that has a consistent history of dysfunction.

The information in this post is largely based on a presentation by Peter Wattson from the Minnesota Senate Council at the Minnesota Redistricting Forum. A copy of his presentation can be found here.

The Olden Days

At first seats in the Senate were assigned to counties in rural areas and to cities in the urban areas, even going down to the ward level in the Twin Cities. Under the Minnesota constitution, representative seats don't have to be single member districts, the requirement is only that there be between one and four representatives for each Senate district. So legislative districts were not always evenly distributed as they are now.

As the population grew, more seats were simply added to account for this growth. At one point the number of legislators was cut in half, but eventually these seats were all added back due to population growth.

1913 would be the last time the Minnesota Legislature added seats for awhile, that year they passed a redistricting bill calling for 67 Senators and 130 Representatives and that's the way it stayed until the 1960's.

Post World War I

In 1930 Minnesota lost a congressional seat, going from 10 to 9. The legislature passed a new congressional map that was vetoed by newly elected Governor Floyd Olson. The legislature took the case to court, arguing that the Governor didn't have the right to veto the plan.

The 1932 elections came with the matter unresolved so the nine seats were at-large. At that time there were three major parties in Minnesota, Republicans, Democrats and Farmer-Labor's, so there were close to thirty people running for those nine at-large seats.

The outcome was that three candidates from the cities and seemingly everyone with a Scandinavian last name won. The legislature promptly drew a new map in 1933 that was more amenable to the Governor, but they didn't bother to draw a new state legislature map.

This was eventually forced by post war population trends. People were moving out of rural areas and into the cities. The legislature, which was dominated by rural members, was reluctant to redraw the maps and cede power to the cities

That is until a lawsuit in 1958, Magraw v. Donovan, forced their hand. In the decision the court noted that the difference between the Senate district with the largest population and the district with the smallest population was 9 to 1. In the house it was close to 15 to 1. Not surprisingly those districts with the highest population were in the cities.

In a 1959 special session the Legislature passed a new apportionment law, but it didn't take effect until after the 1960 elections.


After the 1960 census, Minnesota lost yet another congressional seat and the legislature drew a new eight district map that was signed by the Governor.

In 1964, Honsey v. Donovan, called into question the fairness of the legislative plan that was adopted in the 1959 special session, the spread in the Senate districts had declined from 9 to 1, but was still 4 to 1, the house going from almost 15 to 1 to 7 to 1.

The courts ordered the legislature to draw a new plan and one was passed in the following legislative session. It was than vetoed by Governor Karl Rolvaag.

The legislature tried yet again in a 1966 special session and finally came up with something that earned the Governor's signature.

This would be the last time that the Minnesota map was not in some way drawn by judges.


The 1971 legislative session is best remembered for the Minnesota Miracle, but it also became a battleground over redistricting. During the long session the legislature eventually passed a plan that was vetoed by Governor Wendall Anderson and the session concluded without a new redistricting bill.

A subsequent lawsuit, because it can't be Minnesota redistricting without a lawsuit, caused the court to take it upon themselves to draw up a plan.

This being one of those activist courts we hear so much about, they decided to just ignore the law and reduce the number of Senators and Representatives. The courts plan went from 67 Senators to 35 and 135 Representatives to 105.

Senate District 67, one of those eliminated by the Minnesota courts plan, appealed to the US Supreme Court who threw out the plan and told the lower court to follow the damn law and not be activist judges. I'm summarizing of course.

The courts drew up a new plan, this one consisting of 67 Senators and 134 Representatives, our current make-up.


In 1982 the Senate passed a new plan but the house never did, so yet again the issue was resolved by the courts.


All of the previous years of redistricting drama could almost be seen as a prelude to what happened in 1991.

The legislature passed a redistricting bill that Governor Arne Carlson vetoed, or at least thought he did. Turns out the Governor's staff didn't get the veto order back to the legislature on time and the bill had become law without his signature.

Governor Carlson declined to appeal the ruling, but that didn't stop others from contesting the plan. There were multiple lawsuits involved and the interactions between them can get somewhat confusing, but the long story short is the state court held the congressional and legislative plans to be valid although they contained some population inequalities that the court rectified.

Not to be upstaged however, a federal court, ruling on a different lawsuit, decided that their wisdom and expertise was required and issued an injunction against the state courts congressional plan. They drew up a new congressional map and told the Secretary of State to use that map if she knew what was good for her.

This was appealed to the US Supreme court who basically told the federal court to mind it's own damn business and let the states do redistricting how they see fit.

So in the 1992 congressional elections the map drawn by the federal court was used, and in the 1994 election and afterwards the map drawn by the state court was used.


2001 was certainly less dramatic than 1991, but as usually happens in a divided government situation, in this case DFL Senate and GOP House, the legislature couldn't agree on a plan and so the courts once again drew the map.

The Present

All of which brings us to 2011, not quite the present, but close enough. Again, provided Mark Dayton is sworn in on schedule, we have a divided government situation. Since both houses of the legislature are controlled by the Republicans they shouldn't have any problems getting a bill passed, the question is will they pass something that Mark Dayton can sign.

It's made all the more interesting by the realities of the the population trends over the last ten years and what changes are going to have to be made to the map, but that's a topic of discussion for another day.

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