A panel of Minnesota judges finalized the new district lines which could shift political power for voting blocs across the state. Credit: Ben Hovland | Sahan Journal

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A panel of five Minnesota judges finalized the state’s new voting lines after months of deliberation.

The new map, released February 15, marks the end of the state’s redistricting process. Now individual counties and cities will use the judges’ map to draw their own lines.

The judges’ panel took on the responsibility of submitting a new map after the divided state legislature failed to agree on one proposed map. 

When the U.S. Census rolls out every 10 years, each state is responsible for using updated population data to lay out its districts. In Minnesota, judges divided the state into eight congressional districts, each of which elects a member to the U.S. House. The map also determines the boundary lines for 67 state Senate districts, each of which is divided into two state House districts.

One notable change comes in the 2nd Congressional District, represented by U.S. Representative Angie Craig. The 2nd lost two counties, Wabasha and Goodhue, and gained portions of Le Sueur and Rice counties. In a swing district, losing those voters could make a huge difference for Craig in this year’s elections.

The political power held by people of color could also change within the new boundaries.

District lines can shape the political power of voting blocs throughout the state, making redistricting a hot-button issue. In some states, district lines have been gerrymandered—manipulated to favor a certain political party—an act that critics call harmful to democracy. In Minnesota, experts have stressed the importance of keeping communities of color geographically together so as to not split their voting power. 

While it may seem like a complex, wonky issue, redistricting affects the lives of residents in a variety of ways—from determining where you submit your votes during elections to who is representing you in Washington, D.C.

Sahan Journal spoke with experts on redistricting to break down how it will affect communities of color in Minnesota. 

  • Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera is executive director for the Minnesota chapter of Common Cause, a national nonpartisan voter advocacy group. Belladonna-Carrera’s work centers around building political power for disenfranchised communities.
  • Nelima Sitati Munene is executive director for African, Career, Education & Resource (ACER), and has led efforts to include people of color in the 2020 Census count. She’s also partnered with other organizations to propose community-centered maps.
  • Xiongpao “Xp” Lee won a seat on the Brooklyn Park City Council during a special election February 8. Lee has been involved in census outreach efforts. As a city council member, he will be responsible for using the state’s new district maps to draw voting lines in Brooklyn Park. The city-level map will set the stage for city council elections in November.

What is redistricting?

Members of the U.S. Congress and state legislatures represent different sections of the state—called districts. Those districts take shape based on the most recent census population data, since each district should have the same number of residents. The process of determining the boundary lines for each district is called redistricting. 

“In theory, it’s supposed to balance the political process,” Sitati Munene said. “On our end, there are some things that we were taking into consideration. For example, it’s important how the maps are drawn so that the powers of our communities are not diluted.”

Who decides what the maps look like?

Typically, the state legislature is responsible for passing a bill containing new district maps every 10 years for approval by the governor. Political party caucuses created three different maps in the state legislature: the House DFL plan, the House GOP plan, and the Senate GOP plan

But with the legislature divided, Republicans and Democrats in Minnesota have historically struggled to agree on the best map. In that case, a state judicial panel is responsible for approving its own map based on guided principles to ensure a fair process. 

The judges considered four proposals pushed by citizen-led groups. The Wattson plan recommended a “least-change” approach. The Corrie plan proposed boundaries that prioritized strengthening the political power of voters of color. The Anderson plan was proposed by state Republican activists. The Sachs plan represented the state’s Democrats.

The judges instead approached the map by remedying each existing district to balance population changes by “applying politically neutral redistricting principles,” according to the judges’ final order. 

What does the courts’ new map tell us?

While legislators and judges struggled to hash out the new maps, grassroots organizers also played a role in the process. Belladonna-Carrera, an advocate for the Corrie plan, said the new maps reflected some of those demands. 

“Clearly the court was influenced by the voices that came from the community, no matter where in the state,” she said. “We were able to, for the first time, be equal stakeholders in this space and make sure that the voices of disenfranchised Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color were heard.”

“Clearly the court was influenced by the voices that came from the community, no matter where in the state. We were able to, for the first time, be equal stakeholders in this space and make sure that the voices of disenfranchised Minnesotans and Minnesotans of color were heard.”

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera

For example, the Corrie plan proposed nine majority BIPOC districts for the House plan and five for the Senate plan. The courts’ map used those numbers.

The courts also created 22 opportunity districts for the House plan and 10 opportunity districts for the Senate plan. Opportunity districts exist when a large percentage of the district’s population have a shared identity or interest and are likely to elect someone who represents those interests, Belladonna-Carrera said. These numbers fell just shy of the Corrie plan’s goal.

“There were a couple of things we were disappointed in, in not seeing the court reflect what communities in the area asked for,” she said. 

For instance, advocates had pushed for existing districts to be redrawn to keep the three reservations of the Ojibwe First Nations together. The reservations–Red Lake, White Earth, and Leech Lake–remain split at the state House level. 

Similarly, Black immigrant communities in Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center had asked to be united by district. The district lines stayed the same. The Latino communities in Chaska, Shakopee, and Jackson also remain split among state House districts.

“It reminds us that it was the job of the Minnesota legislature to adequately put their constituents first,” she said. “If they did that, you would get maps that better represent the people that are living, working, thriving, in those districts. And you get less of that partisan stalemate.”

How will I be affected?

According to Belladonna-Carrera, redistricting is simply the drawing of voting maps. But an individual’s power in the United States is directly tied to that vote, she added.

“I compare it to gardening. You and I live in townhomes next to each other. We pay the same rent, we have access to the same yard, we’re both gardeners, and the landlord comes and says, ‘Here’s a bag of seeds to plant,’” Belladonna-Carrera said. 

Both yards are getting the same sun, water, and weather. However, a previous tenant released harmful chemicals into the soil. So one resident produces less plants of lower quality than their neighbor. 

“Although each of us believes we’re starting off as equals, my side produces less plants. That’s exactly what redistricting is,” she said.

Local elections could also look different in the coming months.

Equitably drawn districts allow constituents to advocate for issues of their communities to their elected representatives, said Belladonna-Carrera. Bus lines, school districts, clean parks, and police presence can all be improved as a result, she said.

Added Sitati Munene: “The district you belong to could change. Where you vote could change. That will have a huge impact on voting.”  For example: “In the case of Brooklyn Park, we definitely anticipate our local council won’t look the same.”

“The district you belong to could change. Where you vote could change. That will have a huge impact on voting. In the case of Brooklyn Park, we definitely anticipate our local council won’t look the same.”

Nelima Sitati Munene

In November, half of that city’s City Council seats will be up for reelection. Those council members could be representing newly drawn districts in the city, too.

Lee, on the other hand, won a special election to the Brooklyn Park City Council, so he will be able to serve out the rest of his term regardless of what his district looks like. 

“It’s about who you can relate to, who you can identify with, and who holds the power and is actively voting in your neighborhood,” Lee said. “If you and your neighbors share a sense of community and interests and you straddle a road used to divide districts, you should raise your voice to say, ‘We want to be able to vote together.’”

What’s next? 

Cities and counties will meet to determine their own district lines based on the state’s latest map. Sitati Munene encourages those residents whose city is split up into wards or districts to look into how those might change under redistricting. 

The deadline to finalize city lines is March 29, Belladonna-Carrera said. Then, counties will have until April 26 to form their own districts.

Again, districts could shape how elections play out in certain cities. With Lee’s election, the Brooklyn Park City Council is made up of a majority of people of color. But three seats are up for reelection in November. 

“Whatever districts get drawn and accepted in the next month or so, that will set up the races for this November. It could pit council members against each other,” Lee said. “I’m looking at equity and representation. We’re a majority-minority city; our districts should represent that as much as possible.”

Can I provide input?

Yes! Some cities and counties will hold community meetings in the following weeks. Depending on the city or county’s process, a committee will use resident input when drawing out its own boundary lines.

“Local redistricting is happening right now, and it’s important for them to show up,” Belladonna-Carrera said. “They don’t have to be experts in anything. All that city council and county commissioners need to know is who they are and where they are.”

For example, Belladonna-Carrera may speak up about the Latino community’s presence where she lives in the West Side of St. Paul and urge the city not to split up the community through district lines. 

“There’s still an opportunity to learn more about what’s happening at the local level and to get involved by either sending an email, leaving a voice message, or submitting a written statement,” Belladonna-Carrera said. 

In Brooklyn Park, the Charter Commission is seeking public comments through an online form. Lee has been pushing for input from immigrant communities in particular.

“You don’t have to be a citizen to be involved in redistricting,” Lee said. “Your elected officials should be working for all residents of their districts, even if there are residents who aren’t able to vote for them. That’s how a representative democracy should work.”

Hibah Ansari is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.