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Thursday, October 21, 2004

Redistricting in Massachusetts

Date: October 21 2004
Sent to but not published by Boston Globe

The redistricting problems of Massachusetts have faded from memory. But unless we devise a better method of setting District boundaries, our troubles will come back at the beginning of the next decade. We need to think through an alternative to the Legislature devising the boundaries.
Think back to when you were a child, if a piece of cake had to be divided between you and a friend, you quickly figured out that the way to get a fair distribution was for one person to cut the piece of cake in half and for the second person to decide which piece to take. That kept the cutter honest and made sure that two equal pieces emerged.
It is not like that when it comes to choosing the boundaries of political districts in Massachusetts, the big brothers and sisters on Beacon Hill design and choose the boundaries – it is almost like the politicians choose the voters rather than, as it should be, the voters choosing their representatives. As a result Massachusetts has almost the least competitive election in the US. It is very clear that redistricting is much too important to be left to the politicians who act as the political heirs of Elbridge Gerry to create districts to suit their convenience.
There must be a better, fairer way of setting the boundaries of electoral districts. There are! Federalism is, after all, a source of experimentation so we can see a number of alternatives existing across different states.
My favorite would be for Massachusetts to adopt an independent electoral redistricting commission such as that found in Arizona. A committee of 5 persons is charged with undertaking the redistricting every ten years. Four of these are partisan (selected from a pool of 25 generated by the State Supreme Judicial Court) – but are NOT current, past or potential office holders. The four members then select a fifth. This small committee then designs one or more plans based on the usual criteria: equal numbers of voters, contiguity, compactness, community of interest, and adherence to the Voting Rights Act. One of these plans is then adopted by a simple majority vote. The boundaries are then binding on the electorate unless there is a court challenge. Any challenge would go directly to the State Supreme Judicial Court so as to ensure a speedy disposition of the case.
This process of designing the boundaries has the advantage of allowing politically motivated input to the system – through the selection of the commissioners – but keeps the politicians at arm's length when it comes to the design and decision. The least of many evils!
A quick look at the map of the current boundaries of the Massachusetts Congressional Districts shows that many of the current criteria are not met: districts do have roughly equal numbers, but they are not compact and they have little community of interest – what do the voters of preppie Needham have in common with the voters of blue-collar Fall River.
We are six years away from the next Census and the need for redistricting. If we start now, at the pace at which the political wheels turn in Massachusetts, we might have just the new procedures in place for 2001. But we have to get started NOW. If your district has a redistricting reform question on the ballot, I urge you to vote in favor to bring home to our legislators the importance of action.

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