SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — On the second morning of the South Dakota redistricting committee's statewide chautauqua, Rep. Charlie Hoffman thanked map-makers for proposing a model to keep rural residents together in District 23.
"The current map, we've kind of isolated those folks in Spink County," observed Hoffman, R-Eureka, speaking about a cut-out of a few communities in the county in the center of South Dakota farm country. "I'm not sure how they feel about it."
Only one lawmaker — Rep. Ryan Cwach, D-Yankton — pointed out that the so-called "Grouse" map, favored by many rural South Dakotans, throws in residents of western Beadle County roughly 175 miles to the southeast, with voters way up along the Missouri River in Mobridge.
"Beadle and Walworth [County] are pretty far apart," Cwach noted. "[But] I guess we're not going to Huron to hear about how they feel about Beadle County being split apart."
About three hours later and 100 miles east in Aberdeen for the day's second hearing, they found out how another rural resident views the evolving maps.
"Three out of these four proposals trash District 2," said Richard Skorupski, of Frankfort, South Dakota, speaking of a district that runs across a swath of northeastern South Dakota but would be moved to the Sioux Falls region in all but the "Grouse" map. "Three out of these four proposals have told me, 'I am meaningless.'"
The redrawing of South Dakota's legislative boundaries has seen tempers flare, arriving with a 2020 Census showing smaller rural populations while Sioux Falls grows. One rural district, the committee's staff attorney Matt Frame has pointed out, will likely need to be cropped. The number of districts wholly within the Sioux Falls city lines could nearly double.
And that's left rural South Dakotans, particularly in the state's east, fighting over a diminishing number of districts like siblings in bed trying to pull an increasingly small quilt to cover their feet.
At stop after stop on Tuesday, Oct. 12, from Mobridge to Aberdeen to Watertown, residents expressed frustration at the state's growing urbanization. Grocer Ben Stoick in Mobridge uncharitably invoked Hillary Clinton, insinuating that residents in Aberdeen (a city of 28,000 people) view his neighbors in Mobridge as "deplorables" in "flyover country."
Coincidentally it was Kyler Dinger, a delivery pilot, who stood to speak later that day in Aberdeen, complaining about a previous cycle of the map, when politicians to his east — closer to the Minnesota border in District 1 — represented him.
"It's hard to meet and build any sort of relationship when you don't see them around town or have them sitting next to you at the local high school football game," Dinger said. "This leads to uninformed voting."
The four maps put forth by the dual committees, who finished their tour on Wednesday, Oct. 13, with two meetings in Sioux Falls, all decrease the number of rural districts in the state, though cuts vary in pain.
"Grouse," shepherded by Rep. Drew Dennert — an Aberdeen Republican whose grandfather, Democratic former lawmaker Paul Dennert, voted in opposition to the current map — removes District 17, currently Clay and Turner counties, from the state's southeastern corner, in lieu of a new district in northwestern Sioux Falls. In response, Dennert sandwiches together Yankton and the college town of Vermillion, a historically moderate-to-left-leaning district.
"Falcon," reared by Sen. Jim Bolin, R-Canton, who served on the 2011 redistricting committee, picks up aforementioned District 2 from the soybean farms of Spink County and drops the three legislators into the subdivisions in northwest Sioux Falls.
A plan called "Eagle," presented by Sen. Troy Heinert, D-Mission, sends District 2 to counties closer to Sioux Falls. It's a similar move by "Blackbird," presented by Sen. Casey Crabtree, which dispatches District 2 to the exurban land between Sioux Falls and the Minnesota border.
Each plan will likely face upheaval before a special session on Nov. 8 in Pierre. As public shared testimony, Dennert promised to un-link Yankton and Vermillion. Bolin asked about new configurations around Spink County. None may matter, too. If the chambers can't agree by month's end, there'll be intervention by the South Dakota Supreme Court to draw the maps.
The tour has also reflected larger frustrations, some spurred by demographics, that reveal misperceptions by the public about what drives South Dakota. While many on the tour have stood to defend agricultural interests, South Dakota State University political science professor David Wiltse, in response to the Pandora Papers, wrote a column for The Washington Post explaining that the state's largest economic sector is finance, largely rooted in Sioux Falls.
That's put legislators in a bind — trying to speak to the state's agrarian spirit, while constitutionally allowing for each voter's voice to be heard equally.
One uniting factor has been the bird-themed names of the maps. On Tuesday, House Speaker Spencer Gosch joked about the roots of Grouse, Falcon, Eagle, and Blackbird's names.
"The reason that they're labeled by bird names is they're basically an unbiased, incalculable, 'This is better than the other,''" said Gosch, R-Glenham. "That's why there's no pheasant map, there's not a prairie chicken map, there's not a partridge map."
Pheasant, of course, whether it's Sioux Falls or Mobridge or Wasta gets to keep its top spot as state bird, though "grouse" struck some as shrouded in obscurity.
"I had no idea what a grouse was," said a Sioux Falls resident on Wednesday evening. "I googled it. And I thought it looked like a pheasant."