Brent Buckner is the point person in a legal effort to ensure that the interests of Minnesota’s communities of color are represented in the state’s legislative redistricting process. Credit: Courtesy Brett Buckner

Brett Buckner is a busy man. “Today, we’re preparing for this really large event in the next couple of weeks, the City of Lakes Games,” Buckner told Sahan in a Friday morning phone call. “We’re going to have close to a thousand kids running around North Minneapolis playing games and, at the end of this, try to break a couple of world records.” 

At the end of the call, he would confess that he answered several emails throughout. He’s clearly an experienced multitasker, though, and never seemed less than fully engaged in the conversation. 

Buckner, the managing director of the community group OneMN.org, is conducting a symphony of 50 organizations to orchestrate the 22-day event in North Minneapolis (“modeled on the Tokyo Olympics”) for 700 or more kids. “It’s kind of a drop-in situation, kids can just try out,” Buckner said.

At the same time, Buckner is also point person for OneMN.org’s participation in a legal effort to ensure that the interests of Minnesota’s communities of color are represented in the state’s legislative redistricting process. 

Legislative redistricting might sound unrelated to the task of hosting the largest game of catch in the world (Current title holder: Willow Creek Community Church of Barrington, Illinois,) but Buckner says there is a connection. “There are some definite overlaps when we start talking about what we define as a community,” he said.

On Thursday, a group of seven individuals and three organizations filed a petition with the Minnesota Supreme Court, asking permission to intervene in the redistricting process on behalf of all the BIPOC communities of Minnesota. 

The process will redraw Minnesota’s eight congressional districts into new shapes, each of which should be home to 703,677 people. Districts will be further divided into smaller political subdivisions. According to the state constitution, the legislature is responsible for the process, but has failed to ratify new maps on time. 

On June 30, the Minnesota Supreme Court appointed a five-judge panel to oversee redistricting in place of the legislature. This makes the sixth time in a row the courts have assumed responsibility for the once-in-a-decade process.

It is a plodding, legalistic operation blending politics, math, demographics, geography, economics, and so on. But set aside the science, and legislative redistricting is the art of defining, and plotting the borders between, the communities that make up a state.

OneMN.org is joined in the petition by Common Cause, a national “citizens lobby” founded in 1970 by a Republican, which has come to be associated with the campaign to defend voting rights in recent years. The third organization is Voices for Racial Justice, a Minnesota non-profit that seeks to achieve racial justice through organizing, leadership training, community policy and research, according to its website.

The seven individuals on the petition all identify as Black, Indigenous, Asian, or Hispanic. One, Alberder Gillespie, is a former school board member from Woodbury. Another, Bruce Corrie of St. Paul, is an economist who once served on the advisory board of the  Federal  Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. A third, Abdirizak Mahboub, is a commercial landlord in Wilmar.

It is a diverse group, but they share an interest in voting rights and a concern that, without their intervention, the voting power of their communities will be diluted by the legislative maps that are eventually drawn.

Annastacia Belladonna-Carrera is the executive director for Common Cause Minnesota, the state affiliate of Common Cause. 

“We’re not just filing a lawsuit that says please let us be at the table,” Belladonna-Carrera explained at a press conference Thursday announcing the legal action. 

Rather, the groups are organizing workshops where communities draw their own maps. Those communities will then come together to negotiate what they think the district maps should look like. Finally, the petitioners will present those suggestions to the judges overseeing the process.

With “everyday people engaging,” Belladonna-Carrera said, “we’re going to be moving forward maps that equitably and fairly represent Minnesotans.”

The devil is in the details

The petition filed by the group includes an explanation of the redistricting process. 

Every 10 years the federal government undertakes a census to count each person in the country. Based on how many people live in each state, the government decides how many U.S.representatives each state will get, and, therefore, how many votes they get in the Electoral College to decide the president. (Each state, regardless of population, also gets two electoral college votes for its two senators.)

After it completes the census, the federal government gives each state a detailed block-by-block tally of how many people live there. Each state legislature takes that information and divides the state into districts. Each should contain the same number of people, and each gets one U.S. Representative. (Smaller political subdivisions are also mapped, including districts for state senators and representatives.)

The idea is simple enough, but there is a lot of power in deciding which people belong in which district.

As the Nation explained in an article earlier this year, in 2010, the Wisconsin GOP got about 57% of votes in state house races, and won just over 60 percent of state house seats. In 2012, because of how the GOP-controlled legislature drew the maps, they got about 47 percent of the votes, but maintained about 60 percent of the seats.

This is called “gerrymandering.” The term was coined in 1812 to ridicule Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry. Gerry had signed off on a redistricting plan which benefited his party and which included one district so misshapen critics said it looked like a salamander. Gerry+salamander=gerrymander.

“The Gerry-Mander,” a political cartoon drawn by Elkanah Tisdale published in the Boston Centinel in 1812. Credit: Public Domain

The most basic gerrymandering techniques are “packing” and “cracking.” The first occurs when communities from two or more districts are merged so they are only a major constituency in one. The second is when a community is split into different districts to keep its members from being a major constituency in any one.

Though not unheard of, gerrymandering has not played a major role in Minnesota politics thanks to the state’s historically divided government. One party has controlled the governorship and both houses of the legislature only twice since 1992: the DFL in 2013 and 2014. This division is why the responsibility for redistricting has fallen to a non-partisan, court-appointed Special Redistricting Panel every cycle since 1971.

Because the courts are responsible for drawing the maps, the process will look like a series of public hearings and trials, with petitioners presenting evidence before the judges. Brian Dillon, an attorney representing the petitioners, explained by email that, “We are asking the court to recognize my clients’ right to participate in the litigation as a party, so that we have an opportunity to advocate for a redistricting plan we believe is appropriate, and also weigh in on other plans that might be put forward by the other parties.”

This is the fourth petition seeking to intervene in the redistricting process that has been brought. The other three were brought by supporters of the DFL, supporters of the MNGOP and self-described “redistricting aficionados.” 

Law requires Minnesota’s redistricting be complete by February 15, 2022, Dillon said. In the court order establishing the Special Redistricting Panel, the Minnesota Supreme Court wrote that—though the legislature still technically has time—the courts must begin their work to guarantee it is finished by the deadline. 

What happens next, Dillon said, will depend on a timeline for the process that is being developed by the panel.

Marginalizing Communities of Color

For some, the first time they learned about Thomas Hofeller was a 2018 obituary in the New York Times, which described him “as a father of the Republican strategy of cementing political control by controlling redistricting, and as the Michelangelo of the modern gerrymander.” 

More people learned of him the next year when the New York Times reported that Hofeller’s daughter, Stephanie, had discovered a stash of documents on hard drives she inherited from her father. She turned those documents over to Common Cause, the same group now signed onto the Minnesota petition. The documents contained evidence that Hofeller and some of his GOP clients had used the legislative redistricting process to discriminate against communities of color. 

The documents seemed to show that Hofeller was an architect behind President Donald Trump’s attempt to insert a citizenship question onto the 2020 census. In legal filings, advocates claimed the question was intended to prevent discrimination. Privately, however, Hofeller recommended it so that the Texas legislature, among others, could exclude from the count both non-citizen residents and children younger than 18, even if those children were citizens. The provisions targeted Latino communities and “would be advantageous to Republicans and non-Hispanic whites,” Hofeller wrote. As an upshot of Latino residents being undercounted, Latino citizens would have been packed into fewer districts, cutting the number of Democratic representatives and further marginalizing Latino communities. 

The U.S. Supreme Court blocked the inclusion of the question on the 2020 census. However, it decided only that the Trump Administration had not been honest when justifying the inclusion of the question. The decision left open the possibility that a similar question could be included in a future census if it were properly justified.

Hofeller’s work was also behind the 2016 North Carolina district maps, according to The New Yorker. The maps were struck down as unconstitutional after evidence was found on Hofeller’s hard drives that he had based the maps on racial data to marginalize Black voters. Common Cause also was involved in that case.

Even in the absence of intentional gerrymandering and racial discrimination, the process can marginalize BIPOC communities. For the 2020 census (which new legislative maps will be based on,) the federal government introduced data privacy measures that researchers warn distorts the data. 

According to researchers at the University of Virginia, sample data provided by the Census Bureau either overcounted or undercounted communities “on so many levels and to such a degree that the data become unusable.” The worst distortions occurred within racial and ethnic minority groups. The white population was only distorted by 0.2%, on average. But the Black population was distorted by percent, the Hispanic population by 16%, and both the Asian and the Native populations by more than 20 percent.

Redistricting in Minnesota

Aida Simon, one of the petitioners, told the Thursday news conference that redistricting is not just a policy issue. “For me and for my family, it’s very personal,” she said. 

Simon is a mother of three and ran for Worthington City Council last year. “I was excited by the opportunity to make a difference for my community,” Simon said, “and to be an example for my kids on how to show up and play an active role in our democracy.” 

Simon and three other women of color were on the ballot that year in Nobles County, where Worthington is located. “If any of us had won our races, it would have been the first time a person of color has been elected to local or statewide office in Nobles County,” she said.

Demographic changes in the area indicated that the women had a decent chance of winning, Simon said. “Less than half of Worthington residents are white. Latinos are the largest demographic, with blacks and Asians also growing.”

Still, none of them won, and Simon said she was “more determined now than ever to work for new maps that will make it possible to see a person of color elected in our district.”

Buckner, the director of OneMN.org, offered a different perspective: not a story of a community being marginalized, but a vision of a community being empowered. “We’ve had Native representatives” in the state legislature, he said, “but they’ve all come from majority-white districts.”

He points to the Native American community around Bemidji. By carefully drawing the legislative maps, Buckner said, the community could be made into a political constituency. “We have had multiple representatives from most of the key populations, but it’s a whole other thing when a Native, indigenous person is elected from that community.” 

Buckner said the youth olympics he is helping organize in North Minneapolis represent an effort to connect people and build community. But, he adds, “It is also what the political side of things represents.”

Legislative redistricting both creates and divides communities by drawing lines around and through groups of people. It has been used to isolate and marginalize communities, and, at first, Buckner said he was resistant to working on the issue. “That’s not the sauce right there for us,” he thought.

But that was years ago, and this is Buckner’s third time getting involved in the process. “Once we really started to adopt that mindset—bringing people together through sports, through service,” he said, “then building communities together was very simple.”

Logan Carroll

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