Redistricting in Nebraska

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Note: Redistricting takes place every ten years after completion of the United States Census. The information here pertains to the 2010 redistricting process.

Redistricting in Nebraska
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Redistricting on PolicypediaState legislative and congressional redistricting after the 2010 CensusState-by-state redistricting procedures

This page is about redistricting in Nebraska. In 2011, Nebraska had three Congressional seats and 49 seats in its unicameral legislature to consider. Internal population shifts and the possibility of expanding the legislature were key questions.

Three counties singlehandedly account for 54% of the Nebraska population and the overall trend in the past decade was for population concentration to shift eastward, something that understandably concerned residents of the vast western expanses.[1]

The legislature passed Congressional and legislative maps for the final time on May 26, 2011. Governor Heineman signed both bills.


The Nebraska Legislature creates a subcommittee that oversees the entire redistricting process.

For each set of maps the legislature prepares, the proposed boundaries are presented as a regular bill in the session.[2]

With the 2011 session set to convene January 4, 2011 and last 90 days, early predictions were that the regular session would not allow enough time to address everything, including redistricting, on the table, leaving open the distinct possibility of a special session.[3] However, Senators still hoped to finish maps by sine die on June 8, 2011.

Ahead of beginning the actual map making, state Senators adopted six criteria, including specific bans on weighing political registration or current partisan representation in drawing boundaries, a declaration that drew journalistic skepticism.[4] An initial deadline to have maps on the Senate floor for debate was set at May 14, 2011.[5]

Once maps were publicized, public hearings, including videoconferencing, were held throughout the state.[6][7]

2011 overview


Members who serve on the redistricting committee come from the Nebraska State Senate and are named by the Legislature’s Executive Board, which announced the 2011 Redistricting Committee at the end of January 2011.[8] Term limits meant no committee member had any previous redistricting experience.[9]

Senators may apply for consideration for the nine seats; in 2011, the Executive Board received a total of 31 applications.[10] The Board votes through successive ballots, a process anticipated to consume an entire day. Instead, a committee of five Republicans and four Democrats was picked on the first ballot.[11]

Figure 1: This map shows the Nebraska Congressional Districts after the 2000 census.

The Committee met on Wednesday, March 16, 2011 to discuss guidelines and to consider adopting a resolution that would lay out specific criteria.[12] Lawmakers did vote to accept the "Boilerplate language," a set of such rules as "Give no favor to political party or affiliations of registered voters.”[13] Some commentators still worried that redistricting would take on a partisan feel in spite of the rules and that the existence of such criteria would be used only as a masking tactic.[14] In the end, though, the Senate voted 40-0 with nine abstentions to accept the guidelines, having made few changes.[15][16]

Later on, at the end of March, members voted to continue using +/- 5% as the acceptable deviation, killing motions to tighten the tolerance alternately to +/- 1% or +/- 3% on a 2-7 vote. In the last few redistricting cycles, the allowed deviation from equal district has changed. In 1991, it was +/- 2%, growing to the current number in 2011.[17] Under the maps that emerged in the 2000 cycle, deviations ran from 1% to 3% out of alignment, still under the 5% cap but beyond what would have been passed in the 1990s.

2010 Census findings

Detailed Census findings focused on the shifts Nebraska's three Congressional seats needed to make. The 2nd, the metropolitan Omaha area, needed to lose 30,000 residents while the 3rd, which covers the entirety of western and central Nebraska, had to gain 47,000.[18]

Ideal sizes for districts, assuming both legislative chambers remained at their current sizes, stood at:

  • Congressional seats: 675,138
  • State Senate seats: 128,598
  • State House seats: 64,299

Hispanics now make up 9% of the state, an increase of nearly 500% from 1990. In the few areas outside Lincoln and Omaha that saw population growth, much of that owed to the influx of Hispanics.[19] Their numbers put them in a position of considerable political advantage.

Legislative maps


Figure 3: This map shows the Omaha metropolitan area Senate Districts after the 2000 census.

One prediction for the outcome of legislative districts after 2011 saw seats drifting east along with population migration and predicted the urban areas around Omaha and Lincoln would gain Senate seats at the expense of rural land.[20][21] Speaker Mike Flood of Norfolk quipped, “If they wanted to count cattle instead of people, I'd go for that.”[22]

In a nod to Western lawmakers, Cedar Rapids Senator Kate Sullivan introduced a bill, LB 195, to add a Senate seat, taking advantage of a law that allows the 49-member Nebraska State Senate to cap out at 50 members. Such a bill had the possibility to help the state's rural West avoid losing representation to the urban centers of the East.[23] Sullivan estimated the ongoing cost for the new seat at $125,000 a year, a sum Sullivan proposed to raise by cutting staff allotments for Senators. She also acknowledged the Legislative Rules Committee would have to consider how to proceed in the event of a tie.

A competing bill, LB 233, would cut the number of seats from 49 down to 45 seats. Its sponsor, Bob Krist, pointed out that the bill would save $500,000 in each biennial legislative cycle, money that would potentially be used to provide travel stipends to Senators dealing with larger districts. Krist's bill would add approximately 3,000 residents to each seat, for an average size of 40,000.[24]

Half the legislative districts, 24 out of 49 seats, had populations at the time that varied more than 5% from the ideal, set at 37,000 apiece. Thus, deciding on new district lines would change almost every seat in the state and could have left some lawmakers without a district in 2012. The number of Senators term-limited in 2012 promised to make changing district divisions a bit easier, though.

The state's General Assembly also has the power to redraw boundaries for the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, Nebraska Supreme Court, Public Service Commission and the State Board of Education. The most serious redistricting work was set to begin on April 1, 2011, when final detailed data was received from the U.S. Census Bureau.


A proposed map that created a Hispanic majority-minority seat in the southern Omaha area provoked Democratic criticism over charges that packing enough Hispanic voters into one seat to create a majority diluted the bloc's voting strength at a state level.[25] With both sides arguing over who was benefiting and especially over whether Hispanic Democrats constituted an ethnic group with a strong political allegiance or a political voting bloc with a unifying ethnicity.

Republican Scott Lautenbaugh, who had introduced the plan, dismissed the overuse of every redistricting critic's favorite word:

"In dealing with the committee, the term gerrymandering has lost any meaning. What we don't like is gerrymandering; what we like is constitutionally sound.”

Press ready quips aside, Lautenbaugh's plan, which would make a re-election bid for Democrat Heath Mello difficult, was an invitation to a federal lawsuit if it passed without some changes.[26]

Hispanic citizen groups also found no common ground. Some found the idea to be a poorly disguised ploy to limit their voting clout while other groups likened it to the majority black district in northern Omaha that already existed.[27]

Another germinating battleground was Sarpy County, and, specifically, Offut Air Force Base. In what was the 2nd District and thus part of Omaha's metropolitan sphere, the military installation looked to go into the 1st, a district anchored by Lincoln.[28] Such changes at the Congressional level would likely also trickle down to impact the legislative maps.

Population loss aside, those whose interests lay in western Nebraska were dismayed at the thought of losing a seat, with some suggesting that the state's east half was getting a pass.[29] Others maintained that the state's shifting demographics meant there was no way not to take a seat from the west.[30] From the point of view of the west, they faced being split too carelessly, and plans that split the panhandle counties, traditionally in a single seat, were particularly unpopular.[31]

A preliminary sketch of the state's proposed northeast and north-central seats showed some changes, though far from a wholesale remapping.[32] Senator LeRoy Louden held that it was possible to meet redistricting's legal requirements without taking representation away from the west.[33]

First maps

Figure 2: This map shows the Nebraska Senate Districts after the 2000 census.

With a tentative deadline of Friday, May 6, 2011 to advance maps in order to begin public hearings by the 13th and commence debate by the 18th, the redistricting committee pulled back on the legislative plan, ostensibly in order to take more time to consider borders and thus avoid redoing the work later.[34]

The battle over Hispanic percentages in southern Omaha played a part, as did concern that an aide to Senator Ben Nelson may have improperly helped a political ally. The aide, John Murante, previously provided pro bono advice to 2008 Republican candidate Rebecca Barrientos-Patlan, who unsuccessfully challenged state Senator Heath Mello. Murante also drew a proposed legislative map that left Barrientos-Patlan's residence outside the Hispanic majority district, something Republicans insisted was not an intentional step to assist her future aspirations.

While Omaha simmered, western Nebraska nearly boiled over. Shifting seats to the more populous regions in the east did not sit well with ranchers and farmers. Before his constituents in Chadron, LeRoy Louden announced, "We are getting screwed royally."[35] He held out hope for preserving the number of rural Senators by pointing to the fact that, just as the west lost population, so did Omaha proper and that it was the suburbs that grew, meaning there might be legal ways to apportion representation without taking Senators away from rural Nebraska.

Fellow lawmkers poured water on that hope, opining that loss of population meant loss of representation and there was no way around it.[36] Specifics of the legislative map added to the dissatisfaction of westerners; in particular, separating from Custer County from the rest of the Sand Hill counties and placing Chadron and Alliance into a distinct district from the rest of the panhandle.[37] Senators Louden and John Harms planned to introduce a bill of their own, saying the initial proposal was ripe for court action. Such a lawsuit, if successful would force the legislature into a special session to start fresh.[38]

A May 13th public hearing on the maps did not go well for legislators. Citizens were upset over numerous instances where previously united areas were set to be split and over moving some cities into new district. Latino voters had not changes their stance on the boundaries for Omaha's southern suburbs.[39] In at least one area, but possibly nowhere else, Nebraskans were happy with what they saw, as there was little complaint over central Nebraska's divisions.[40]

Western Nebraska had problems of its own, with one possible map including a 250 mile wide district where some residents would not actually have a state Senator residing in the same time zone.[41] They received some relief when the Congressional map passed its first vote on May 17th, with an amendment that ensured all of Alliance would be in a single legislative seat, a significant concession. The legislative map itself passed its first vote 39-0 on May 20, 2011 on LB 703, though an amendment to benefit the panhandle at the expense of Ken Schilz's Ogalalla district failed 12-28.[42][43]

Congressional maps


At the Federal level, the 1st District, a mostly rural seat, was speculated to pick up some land from the territory of the 2nd District. Offutt Air Force Base, in Sarpy County, could move from the 2nd into the 1st to being leveling out populations. The 3rd, covering most the rural state, was expected to grow.[44]

Madison County was thought to move from the 1st to the 3rd, as was proposed in the last round of redistricting, but the loss of dependable Republican voters in the former seat spelled the end of the proposal in 2001 and threatened to do so again in 2011.[45]

The final appearance of the 2nd, anchored by Omaha, was expected to influence how heavily Presidential candidates would seek the electoral vote there.[46] Republicans took a drubbing in the press, but at least one editorial was perfectly cynical, concluding, "...only the Pollyannaish among us would believe that Nebraska's Democrats would do anything different if they had the overweening power that the Nebraska GOP possesses."[47]

First maps

Three maps, two Democratic and one Republican were unveiled in the first week of May, both hinging on how to break up Sarpy County. Majority Republicans intended to put Sarpy's western area into the 2nd District, an Omaha-based seat held by Republican Lee Terry. In contrast, the Democrats grouped the more liberal southern portions of Sarpy into the 2nd.[48] In particular, Dems focused on their bases in Bellevue and the neighborhoods just across the Douglas County line from Omaha.

Bellevue, along with Offut AFB, traditionally were in the 2nd, though the 5-4 GOP advantage in the redistricting committee raised the distinct possibility that one or both could be moved into the more solidly red 1st District. One way or another, Sarpy was going to be partitioned after the other possible county to be split - Douglas - won out. Republican Scott Lautenbaugh described it as a necessary if contentious choice: "Part of Sarpy has to go, part of Sarpy has to stay ... you just pick your poison."[49]

The two Democratic maps, put forward by Senators Heath Mello and Bill Avery, differed from one another in their treatment of rural Nebraska. Under Mello's proposal, the enormous 3rd District would pick up much of the state's northeast and several counties on the Kansas border. More drastic was Avery's map, which drew an almost entirely new 1st, centered around Lincoln, with most of the district south of the Platte River.

Round one went to the Republicans on a 5-4 party line vote. By moving Bellevue and Offut into the 1st and keeping areas with higher GOP registration in the 2nd, the latter's Democratic edge was diluted.[50] Avery, unsuccessful in selling his map, described the committee's vote bitterly, lamenting that, "We got rolled."[51] The 1st became a more urban seat that it had previously been, with Nebraska's 2nd and 3rd largest cities now within its bounds, along with the headquarters of the U.S. Strategic Command.[52] Platte and Polk Counties were moved from the 3rd into the 1st, potentially cutting the city of Columbus from a power-player in a rural seat to just one more satellite of an urban seat.[53]

At a hearing on the maps, residents of Bellevue in particular were unhappy. Along with Belleveue's displeasure at being severed from Omaha, at least one man brought up the idea that the Strategic Command Headquarters would not see adequate federal attention without being linked to the economic base in Omaha.[54] Lautenbaugh was cynical about the response, dryly remarking that, "People's passion for not dividing communities waxes and wanes depending on whose district is being divided."[55]

Amended map

Under Senator Lautenbaugh, a slightly amended map was introduced on May 17, 2011, having passed the Redistricting Committee on a partisan vote.[56] Bellevue and Offut AFB were still transplanted from the 2nd to the eastern Nebraska 1st, with Sarpy County making the opposite switch.

Rich in Republicans, Sarpy's move to the 2nd changed the flavor of that swing district, potentially making it safe for Congressman Lee Terry and putting an end to the chance that any Democratic Presidential nominee could pick up one of Nebraska's electoral votes. Democrats lambasted it as illogical, unconstitutional, and "ripe for legal action."[57]

On Thursday, the 19th, the bill, LB 704, passed the first of three votes 32-8.[58][59]

Democrats attempted a filibuster to block the next round on of voting. Russ Karpisek led the effort on Monday, May 23, 2011; it lasted into the afternoon when Republicans managed to get enough members on the floor to end the veto. By 33-15, the minimum, the GOP broke the veto and then took the second of three votes on LB 704; Slightly amended to place all of Bellevue in the First District that passed 34-14.[60] Two Democrats, Annette Dubas and Kate Sullivan, crossed the aisle to cast aye votes.[61]

A handful of other votes were taken on Monday, including defeating Karpisek's proposal to fine-tune district boundaries to minimize population deviations on a 28-16 vote and rejecting a map drawn by the Legislative Research Office, officially nonpartisan, 30-14.[62]

On May 24, 2011, Democrats made final attempts to amend the map by tweaking Omaha's suburbs.[63][64] That area is the most obvious choice for a court challenge, on the grounds of diluting minority influence. The Dems' amendment failed, though, 31-17.[65] After it was voted down, sponsor Bob Krist lamented of the version that still stood, "“It cuts, slices and dices Gretna up like something you’d see in a Ronco commercial."[66]

On Thursday, May 26, 2011, after brief technical glitches and request that the Governor's office return the legislative bill to allow a full reading, the third and final vote was taken.[67] The new districts passed, part of a parcel of bills addressing various political delineations,[68] and Governor Heineman signed them the same day.[69][70]


Western Nebraskans' worry lay in the new, larger, sizes of their seats. Some incumbents shared that concern, remarking on the time that would go into simply driving form one part to the next and on how much some newly joined communities had in common.[71] That the Panhandle had to give up a district to meet the needs of Sarpy County's growing population was going to be a sore point among rural citizens.

That seat, District 49, became a flashpoint the morning after the bill was signed. Legislative staffer John Murante, who had helped draw the maps, announced he would seek the seat. A who's who of Cornhusker Republicans immediately backed his candidacy, causing a state based progressive group to write, "That's a whole lot of high-powered Republicans throwing their support behind Murante before anyone else has even had a chance to realize they live in the 49th District -- let alone that there'll be an open seat."[72]

The Speaker of the Legislature Mike Flood, tried to put the rural west's loss of representation into a positive light, casting the new map as the start of increased cooperation: "The days of rural senators relying on each other and not working with their friends from Omaha and Lincoln are gone."[73]

Other maps

Three other bills, for the University of Nebraska's Board of Regents (LB 700), Nebraska's State Board of Education (LB 701), and the Public Service Commission (LB 702) came up for their first round of debate on Wednesday, May 18, 2011. The bills had to go through the same series of three votes before reaching Governor Heineman's desk.

They joined a fourth bill already in progess, LB 699, the plan for the state's judicial districts, which had already progressed through its first round of debate.[74]



Following the 1990 Census, the legislature passed a hasty plan with little time for public comment, one that was ultimately ruled invalid by the Nebraska Supreme Court on the grounds that lawmakers had ignored a guideline to follow county lines whenever practical.[75] The 2000 process reflected lessons learned, with the Senate ultimately changing some details in light of public input.

Deviation from "Ideal Districts"

2000 Population Deviation[76]
Office Percentage
Congressional Districts 0.00%
State House Districts N/A
State Senate Districts 9.21%
Under federal law, districts may vary from an 'Ideal District' by up to 10%, though the lowest number achievable is preferred. 'Ideal Districts' are computed through simple division of the number of seats for any office into the population at the time of the Census.

Constitutional explanation

The Nebraska Constitution provides authority for redistricting to the Legislature in Section 5 of Article III.

See also

External links


  1. Journal Star, "Don Walton: Here's the census; go figure," March 7, 2011
  2. Fremont Tribune, "Dealing with redistricting challenges," February 22, 2011
  3. The Grand Island Independent, "Nebraska Unicameral session to begin," January 2, 2011
  4. The Journal Star, "Don Walton: Redistricting should be fun to watch," March 14, 2011
  5. Imperial Republican, "Redistricting process well under way"
  6. The Independent, "Public to give input on redistricting," May 11, 2011
  7. Lincoln Journal Star, "Redistricting hearings scheduled Friday," May 12, 2011
  8. Yakton Press Dakotan, "Neb. Redistricting Committee Picked," February 1, 2011
  9. Public Broadcasting, "Has it been ten years already? Redistricting is democracy in action," April 21, 2011
  10. Lexington Clipper Herald, 'Five Republicans and four Democrats chosen for Redistricting Committee," February 1, 2011
  11. Sun Telegraph, "Area senator to serve on redistricting committee," February 2, 2011
  12. KOTA Territory News, "Neb. lawmakers consider redistricting guidelines," March 16, 2011
  13. Nebraska Statepaper, "Nbraska Redistricting: Boilerplate Language Adopted By Committee," March 16, 2011 (dead link)
  14. The Republic, "Nebraska legislative committee discusses guidelines for redrawing political boundary lines," March 16, 2011
  15. Omaha World-Herald, "Redistricting rules little changed," April 9, 2011 (dead link)
  16. Yankton Press & Dakotan, "Neb. Lawmakers Approve Boundary Drawing Guidelines," April 8, 2011
  17. Journal Star, "Redistricting committee proposes 5 percent deviation in redrawing boundaries," March 30, 2011
  18. Omaha World-Herald, "Lawmakers face redistricting puzzle," March 3, 2011
  19. National Journal, "Census Quick Cuts: North Carolina, Nebraska, Delaware," March 3, 2011
  20. Fremont Tribune, "Langemeier see redistricting ahead," January 3, 2011
  21. Kearney Hub, "Might add part of Custer Co.," April 26, 2011
  22. Omaha World Herald, "Musical redistricting," January 4, 2011
  23. The Sidney Sun-Telegraph, "Possibility To Keep Senate Seats?," January 11, 2011
  24. North Platte Bulletin, "Redistricting committee considers two bills," February 17, 2011
  25. Omaha World Herald, "South O district is controversial," April 29, 2011 (dead link)
  26. Nebraska State Paper, "Redistricting And Partisanship Together In The Unicameral," April 29, 2011 (dead link)
  27. Omaha World Herald, "Mixed views on district proposal," April 30, 2011
  28. Journal Star, "Sarpy County focal point of congressional redistricting," April 28, 2011
  29. KCSR AM 610, "Senator Louden Concerned About Redistricting Plans," April 29, 2011
  30. York News Times, "District boundaries debated," May 24, 2011
  31. Rapid City Journal, "Redistricting plan a tragedy," May 24, 2011
  32. Norfolk Daily News, "Redistricting plan taking shape," May 4, 2011 (dead link)
  33. Rapid City Journal, "Redistricting could hurt western Nebraska," April 29, 2011
  34. Omaha World-Herald, "Redistricting panel delays vote," May 3, 2011 (dead link)
  35. Rapid City Journal, "Senator says favored redistricting plan could hurt western Nebraska," May 3, 2011
  36. Journal Star, "Many changes afoot for legislative districts," May 4, 2011
  37. Omaha World-Herald, "Sore spots in redistricting plan," May 5, 2011
  38. Greenfield Reporter, "Nebraska lawmakers wade into redistricting debate for Congressional, legislative boundaries," May 5, 2011
  39. Lincoln Journal Star, "Redrawn legislative boundaries draw interest from east to west," May 13, 2011
  40. The Independent, "Redistricting proposal meets with mixed reviews," May 13, 2011
  41. AM 610 KCSR "Waiting Continues on Redistricting Nebraska," May 17, 2011
  42. Journal Star, "Senators advance legislative redistricting committee proposal," May 19, 2011
  43. Omaha World Herald, "Plan for legislative districts advances," May 19, 2011 (dead link)
  44. Sun Telegraph, "Rules Guide Redistricting Work," April 22, 2011 (dead link)
  45. Journal Star, "Congressional redistricting scramble begins," March 2, 2011
  46. Daily Journal, "Redistricting plan in Nebraska legislature has some wondering if Obama will campaign in Omaha," May 23, 2011
  47. Journal Star, "Editorial, 5/27: Brazen partisan power on display," May 26, 2011
  48. Journal Star, "Offutt focus of competing congressional redistricting plans," May 3, 2011
  49. Omaha World-Herald, "3 redistricting plans unveiled," May 4, 2011
  50. Nebraska Statepaper, "Republicans Have Their Way In First Skirmish Of Redistricting Battle," May 6, 2011 (dead link)
  51. North Platte Bulletin, "Congressional districts redrawn," May 9, 2011
  52. Journal Star, "Don Walton: Fortenberry district change is dramatic," May 9, 2011
  53. Columbus Telegram, "Platte, Polk may move to 1st District," May 9, 2011
  54. Journal Star, "Bellevue residents criticize move to Lincoln district," May 13, 2011
  55. Sioux City Journal, "Nebraska congressional redistricting map draws fire," May 13, 2011
  56. Lincoln Journal Star, "Congressional redistricting heads to floor fight, possible court test," May 17, 2011
  57. The Omaha World-Herald, "GOP redistricting plan advances," May 17, 2011
  58. The Republic, "Nebraska lawmakers advance legislative and congressional district," May 19, 2011
  59. Nebraska State Paper, "GOP Redistricting Plan Rolls Toward Enactment," May 20, 2011 (dead link)
  60. Omaha World-Herald, "Redistricting plan filibustered," May 23, 2011
  61. Omaha World Herald, "Redistricting rides to final vote," May 24, 2011
  62. KVNO News, "Lawmakers wrangle over redistricting," May 24, 2011
  63. Daily Journal, "Nebraska congressional, legislative redistricting maps en route to final vote in Legislature," May 24, 2011
  64. Rockford Register Star, "Nebraska congressional, legislative redistricting maps en route to final vote in Legislature," May 24, 2011 (dead link)
  65. KNVO News, "More suburbs move to Omaha’s district," May 24, 2011
  66. Omaha World-Herald, "Redistricting bill advances," May 25, 2011
  67. Real Clear Politics, "Nebraska redistricting maps advance to final vote," May 26, 2011
  68. The Examiner, "Nebraska Redistricting Committee culminates and new board members are elected," May 27, 2011
  69. The Republic, "Nebraska lawmakers approve, governor signs congressional and legislative redistricting maps," May 26, 2011
  70. Press & Dakotan, "Nebraska Redistricting Maps Approved," May 27, 2011
  71. Journal Star, "Redistricting: Decisions hard fought," May 29, 2011
  72. Journal Star, "Questions raised on newly announced candidate's role in redistricting," June 2, 2011
  73., "Neb. redistricting part of urban growth," June 2, 2011
  74., "Nebraska lawmakers to debate redistricting bills," May 18, 2011 (dead link)
  75. Journal Star, "Redistricting needs public input," January 11, 2011
  76. National Conference of State Legislatures, “Redistricting 2000 Population Deviation Table”," accessed February 1, 2011