Jonathan Kim, a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, is one of nine volunteer advisers in the Minneapolis Redistricting Group. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

Redistricting in Minneapolis—the once-in-a-decade process of redrawing the boundaries of the city’s wards and park districts—is facing some difficult circumstances: The process is being led by the all-volunteer Charter Commission for just the second time, and COVID-19 has forced the process almost entirely online, where accessibility and transparency rely on new technologies.

While those involved are optimistic the process will succeed, some are worried that the challenges might limit public participation. “The way I see it, speaking generally about our political system, a lot of things aren’t necessarily broken, but things are rusty, you know, they need fixing up,” Jonathan Kim said. “That’s where I feel the motivation to participate.” 

Kim is a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. Earlier this year, he applied to join the Minneapolis Redistricting Group, which is composed of the 15 members of the Minneapolis Charter Commission and nine volunteer advisors. In August, he was selected by the Charter Commission to join the group.

Redistricting follows completion of the census. Redrawing the lines of state congressional districts gets the most attention, but other boundaries need to be adjusted, as well. The process has been ramping up since the November election and will finish when the Charter Commission votes on two final maps in March; one for city wards, and one for park districts that will double as the new school district map. (Advisors like Kim don’t vote on the final maps.)

The city’s bureaucratic mechanisms are pushing the process along, but some members of the redistricting group have noticed rust.

The second of just four public hearings will take place Wednesday, and there has been little coordinated public outreach. Technology glitches have prevented some people from participating. The redistricting group also skews whiter and wealthier than the rest of Minneapolis, and there is not a clear plan to engage communities of color. 

“Not having those voices at the table could result in unfavorable maps. Not even through malice, just because if a voice isn’t at the table, you don’t know how to accommodate them. And since these maps are in place for 10 years, that could end up having lasting consequences,” Kim said.

Regardless, Kim expects that the group ultimately will iron out the problems. “We’re not perfect about how we’re handling things. But I think that we’ve got the right people thinking about how we can make it better,” he said. 

A balancing act

The process is being led by Barry Clegg, a tax lawyer who has served on the Charter Commission since 2003. In 2010, he was elected chair. That same year, a ballot initiative handed redistricting to the Charter Commission. Before then, it was a partisan process that happened behind closed doors based on the input of political parties. One year, the Green Party held two city council seats but was outnumbered on the redistricting committee by the GOP, which held none. 

The redistricting process is being led by Barry Clegg, a tax lawyer who has served on the Charter Commission since 2003. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

A more transparent and representative process had immediate results. Changes to the map in 2012 consolidated East Africans in Ward 6 and Latinos in Ward 9, Clegg said. In the next election, Abdi  Warsame was elected from Ward 6 and Alondra Cano from Ward 9; the first Somali and the first  Latina council members in Minneapolis.

Conflict is a byproduct of public participation. “The East African population had a volunteer demographer working for them, as did the Hispanic population. The dividing line between [Wards] 6 and 9; they were fighting over blocks,” Clegg said of 2012, “and we want that. ”  

Among the issues that already have popped up this time is that of rules: What should—and should not—be considered when drawing lines? 

An early controversy arose when Veronica Cary, like Kim a volunteer advisor, proposed a map that inadvertently excluded two newly elected council members from their wards. When the impact of the change was discovered, one member of the Charter Commission insisted that the line be redrawn to keep the council members in their wards. 

In the end, Clegg resolved the conflict by consulting with the city attorney who cited a legal decision that found it was permissible to consider the home addresses of elected officials. 

Wards, park and school district boundaries must be compact; neighborhoods should be kept together where possible; the population of every ward must be within 5 percent of the average (about 33,000 people,) Clegg said. The 1965 Voting Rights Act established rules guiding how race and ethnicity should be considered. These and other considerations mean the current map must be changed, but there is also a rule that the group should change existing maps as little as possible.

Clegg explains what the balancing act looks like in practice. “Ward 5 is currently the only ward where a single minority is an absolute majority.” (He borrows the ‘minority/majority’ language from the Voting Rights Act.) In Wards 4, 6, and 9, no one minority group has a majority, but together they outnumber white people. “We want to preserve those majorities if we can,” Clegg said.

But this goal is complicated by simple math. At 30,465 people, the population of Ward 6 is about 8 percent below the ideal size, so the ward must be expanded by about a thousand people,  which will dilute the East African population. 

“We want to reserve Ward 6 as a minority opportunity ward for Black candidates,” Clegg said, but added that the need to expand the size of the ward makes it difficult. “Somebody submitted a map that does it, but it looks sort of like a spider.”

Central to the process is balancing competing interests; like those of the East African and Latino communities in 2012. That year was a success because of robust public participation, but the process hasn’t seen a repeat of that this year, and there is not a clear plan to make it happen.

Outreach and engagement lag

The group’s outreach strategy lists a small number of ways to contact the public: city newsletters, the city website, city email lists, and press releases. Group members are also “tasked with reaching out to their community networks to raise awareness of the project.” 

There is no mention of outreach to television and radio stations or other media; no mention of social media engagement; and no mention of advertising. 

Clegg said that neither the Charter Commission nor the redistricting group have a budget, but could request funds to take out ads in targeted platforms to reach communities of color. However, he does not plan to make such a request.

Email outreach is handled by the city’s Department of Neighborhood and Community Relations (NCR.), but only to specific populations the city has identified. It’s unclear who they are. A city staff member said during a redistricting meeting they would include neighborhood organizations, and Kim said he thought NCR had a relationship with the American Indian Movement and other groups. “I couldn’t tell you exactly who the outreach has involved,” Kim said.

The city was not able to make a representative from NCR available for an interview before this story went to print. 

Minneapolis may be lagging behind some cities’ efforts. Two early public listening sessions about redistricting in Rochester attracted 20 people and 60 people respectively, said Heather J. Heyer, a management analyst for Rochester. In comparison, two listening sessions held by the redistricting group before the first public hearing attracted five people total, according to a  report provided by Clegg.  As of Tuesday afternoon, only eight had signed up to speak at Wednesday’s public hearing.

Kim said his biggest concern with the outreach and engagement is the “unknown unknowns; the groups that we don’t even realize that we’re not reaching.”

Clegg acknowledged that he and the Charter Commission are responsible for outreach and added that if the process isn’t working, “then we need to do it better.”  

At the same time, Clegg said he does not expect the redistricting group to change its approach. 

Clegg expects engagement to increase organically since the redistricting group approved a preliminary map last month. “Redistricting is a boring topic in the abstract,” he said, “It gets exciting when it starts to cut neighborhoods in half.”

Computer glitches

COVID-19 has forced redistricting online this year. The city uses several pieces of software to make the process transparent and accessible, including Districtr, a commercial map-making program. Cary, a web developer, had reservations about the program but is pleased with how it is working. 

“We’re getting maps from neighborhood organizations, from interested parties, from the public,” Cary said. “Overall, it’s a good tool.”  

However, the mapping software doesn’t work on mobile devices, a major drawback because smartphones are particularly important for younger adults, lower-income Americans and those with less education. Cary says that the city should supplement digital engagement with in-person events.

The second major piece of software the city uses is Microsoft Teams, a video conferencing program which Clegg called “a failure.” Cary, a technology professional, said she had difficulty logging into the platform because she uses a Mac computer, not a Microsoft one.

The redistricting group has scheduled just four public hearings, the legal minimum according to the city charter and fewer than Rochester, which has less than a third as many residents as Minneapolis. On top of that, a computer error prevented most registered speakers from testifying at the first public hearing on November 17. Still, Clegg is non-committal about holding additional meetings.

The final piece of software is a public comment system on the city’s website which Clegg recommended as the best way to give input on redistricting. The system works on mobile phones and computers, and allows people to easily post comments and maps they draw in Districtr. Even though people on mobile devices can’t draw maps, they can explore the maps others post. 

So far, there have been more than 150 comments filed, and the system seems to be a clear success. But success may bring its own challenges.

An ‘ad hoc’ process

Kim studies biostatistics at UMN, that is, he applies probability and statistics to health-related research. As someone trained to work with data, Kim said he is concerned that there is not “a systematic way to use the data that we have.” Each member of the redistricting group is responsible for reading comments forward by the city clerk’s office, a process Kim calls “ad hoc.”

The relatively low volume of public comments has been easy to keep up with, Kim said. But he worries what will happen if, as Clegg anticipates, the public becomes more engaged as the process continues and the volume of comments increases. The problem could be exacerbated by the redistricting commission’s strategy: by focusing on emails to neighborhood groups and city newsletters, they may be targetingprimarily people who are wealthier and whiter than the city as a whole.

One incident illustrates the potential problem. A group identifying itself as Citizens for Fair Redistricting has been involved in the process. The name is reminiscent of a group which represented the Somali community last cycle (“Citizen’s Committee for Fair Redistricting,”) and the new group is also advocating for the interests of the East African community. They have filed comments and maps online, and members of the group have spoken at public meetings about the importance of increasing “the percentage of Black, Brown and Indigenous people in Ward 6 and other wards in the city.”

However, Pat Kelly (who filed a map on behalf of the group) is the chair of the DFL Senior Caucus, Tony Scallon (who spoke on behalf of the group at the first public hearing) is the membership officer for the caucus, and Wallace Swan (who has filed comments in support of Kelly’s map) is the vice chair of the caucus.

Tim Bonham, Minneapolis DFL Senior Caucus Treasurer, said by email that Citizens for Fair Redistricting did not have “a specific connection to the East African community, other than that they are concerned about similar issues.”  

A user identifying themself as Farah Warsame responded to the Senior Caucus’s actions, charging that its concern for East Africans is a front to keep supporters of Council Member-elect Michael Rainville (whom the caucus endorsed) in Ward 3 to shore up his chances of re-election. “As a Somali American living in W[ard] 6, I want to say that these elderly, white individuals do not speak for the East African community,” Farah wrote.

“We’re not stupid,” Clegg said of the incident. He trusts commissioners’ ability to analyze comments. “Everyone has their own map that they want. And they’ll always attempt to justify it with the purest motive in the land.”

Kayseh Magan, the only East African volunteer advisor on the redistricting group, said the best way to overcome problems in the process was to increase participation. Like Clegg, he is hopeful that having a draft map will make it easier for people to get involved. ”People can just look at that map and say, ‘Well, I don’t want to be in this ward or this ward,’ or ‘this demographic group is diluted because of this,’” he said 

“I think a lot of these problems will be mitigated by increased participation,” Magan said.

Logan Carroll is a journalist who reports on Minnesota's right-wing media ecosystem and other stories. Follow him on Twitter, @Unbalanced_MN.