LET’S GET redistricting out from behind closed doors. Before the Massachusetts Legislature votes in the autumn to approve new districts for Congress, as well as for the state House and Senate and the Governor’s Council, the public should be granted a reasonable amount of time to examine the proposals and maps. But the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, which promises to produce the maps by September, refuses to convene hearings after the new districts are finally drawn.
Although the committee held 13 hearings throughout the state for comment, co-chairman Michael Moran, a Democratic state representative from Brighton, said that interested parties would be able to look at the maps and the detailed electoral districts for only two or three weeks before the Legislature votes on the proposals. At a hearing in June in Lexington, he refused to provide more access so that citizens could offer additional suggestions. The Legislature, he said, would vote on the new plans with or without additional citizen input.
Because of population shifts, Massachusetts forfeits one congressional seat and has to reshuffle the borders of state districts. Two Massachusetts congressmen may be pitted against each other, and the Legislature will decide where the district borders are drawn and in whose favor.
Moran says that the process will be much fairer than previous redistricting efforts, when House speakers tended to use the process to punish some legislators and favor others.
The committee promises to try to keep cities and towns together and the electoral districts reasonably compact. It also promises to limit gerrymandering – the practice of drawing strangely shaped districts to help incumbents get reelected. Yet how the districts are drawn will determine which representatives and senators can win their seats securely.
To groans from the Lexington crowd, Moran asserted that politicians can best redistrict, without the help of professionals or independent commissions such as the nonpartisan efforts used in Iowa, New Jersey, California, and Florida. Despite the inherent conflict of interest when legislators reorganize their own electoral areas and fates, he said that he would “never support a redistricting commission’’ that was not controlled by politicians.
Illinois and Texas have demonstrated how partisan redistricting benefits dominant political parties and well-connected incumbents. In Texas, where Republicans control the process, incumbent Democrats are finding themselves competing against one another in reconfigured congressional constituencies. In Illinois, where Democrats rule, Republican congressmen are competing against each other. Freshmen legislators are particularly at risk in redistricting.
In contrast, California has removed redistricting decisions from elected officials. An appointed, nonpartisan redistricting commission has begun to construct compact, contiguous, community-respecting new electoral districts that will favor the public interest over the interests of incumbents in either party. There will now be legislative contests in parts of the state that haven’t seen contests in recent years.
In Massachusetts, the state should work long-term to take redistricting out of the hands of politicians. In the meantime, once maps are ready in September, the redistricting committee needs to throw open the doors for substantial citizen input. Otherwise, the 2011 redistricting process will have little legitimacy.
Published in The Boston Globe on August 6th, 2011