How are electoral districts currently drawn?
The state legislature redraws electoral districts following the U.S. census every 10 years for the offices of State Representative, State Senator, and representatives in Congress. Redrawing districts, or “redistricting” is required by the state and U.S. Constitutions to maintain the notion of “one person, one vote.” Without readjusting electoral districts periodically, population shifts would result in some districts containing vastly more people than others, which would “dilute” some people’s votes and give others more influence.
What is the history of redistricting in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts has a long history of drawing funny shaped districts for political gain which is known as "Gerrymandering." After all, it started here almost 200 years ago when Governor Elbridge Gerry pushed to create one district with such meandering borders that it reminded people of a salamander. At the time, this was seen as such an egregious abuse of power that the people voted Gerry out of office the next year!
But the original gerrymander was far from the last in Massachusetts or the rest of the country. The practice continues across the country to this day. Some districts, like Gerry's, are only one town wide in some places and zigzag from north to south. Others cut towns slice communities into tiny pieces. Today, the ability of legislators to ensure their easy re-election gets more sophisticated with each census. Software has reached the stage where a powerful few can enter the attributes of their ideal districts and get the desired results, down to the last house, in a few seconds. These districts don't always look like salamanders, but they're just as gerrymandered.
What’s wrong with the legislators drawing districts?
Having elected officials draw the districts in which they will run is like the proverbial fox guarding the chicken coop. The redistricting process has historically been used to box potential challengers out of districts and to design districts that maximize support for those in control of the process. Thanks to the wizardry of computer programs that draw incumbent-safe districts with ease, the current process of redistricting is nothing short of democracy on its head: Elected officials picking their voters instead of the other way around. That’s not what democracy is all about.
Redistricting can also be fraught with favoritism: legislative leadership has used it to punish disfavored legislators and reward loyal lieutenants. In the process, communities are fractured, minorities disenfranchised, and districts designed that look like salamanders, snakes, and saxophones. Electoral competition suffers as a result. In recent years, Massachusetts has ranked 49th of the 50 states across the nation in terms of electoral competition, largely thanks to a redistricting process that extinguishes competition. Although elections are uncompetitive for many reasons -- including money in politics and the declining prestige of political service -- the role of incumbent protection through the redistricting process is a significant factor
Before the most recent redistricting process in 2010-2012, redistricting has been conducted behind closed doors on Beacon Hill with little discussion or public input. In 2001, legislators on the House redistricting committee were handed a leadership-designed map 10 minutes prior to the vote and told to vote “yes”—and they did. That’s no way to choose our leaders.
Wasn’t the 2001 redistricting plan for Boston thrown out?
Yes. A federal district court ruled in February 2004 that the House’s 2001 plan violated the federal Voting Rights Act by under-representing minority voters in the city of Boston. While the percentage of voters of color in Boston increased significantly between 1990 and 2000, the House’s plan actually decreased the number of districts with a majority of non-white voters.
It did this by packing minority voters into a few districts and then grabbing parts of adjoining suburbs to make the remaining districts whiter. The court voided the plan, saying the legislature “turned a blind eye to the racial implications of its single-minded effort to protect incumbents at virtually any social cost.” Courts also threw out redistricting plans in 1993 and in 1997—each of the last three times districts have been redrawn. Litigation costs for the 2004 case alone cost taxpayers 5 million dollars—not counting the money spent on making the offending districts themselves.
Wasn’t the 2012 redistricting process much better than usual?
Yes. Due to pressure from Common Cause and others, the Massachusetts legislature engaged in most open, transparent, and principled redistricting process ever in Massachusetts in 2010-2012.
The Joint Committee on Redistricting released the maps with an unprecedented two-week comment period, created an informative and interactive website which gave citizens the tools to create maps, held hearings attended by over 3,000 citizens and, most importantly, released maps that were more compact, preserved communities, and provided better minority representation than they had before. The Center for Public Integrity gave Massachusetts redistricting process an "A" grade for openness and transparency.
Privately, some committee members acknowledge the pressure and interest that Common Cause built over the years as a key factor in this success.
How should the redistricting process work?
Redistricting should be conducted without political and racial bias. It should keep towns and communities of interest together whenever possible and should not protect favored legislative leaders. It should not be a tool to punish anyone regardless of political belief or status as a challenger or incumbent. Redistricting should be open to public input and scrutiny from beginning to end.
How can we improve the system even more?
The responsibility of redistricting should ultimately be taken out of the hands of self-interested legislative leaders and given to a non-partisan independent redistricting commission guided by strict standards. These standards would require that:
- Towns and neighborhoods within cities be kept intact and not split between multiple legislators.
- Districts be compact and contiguous.
- Addresses of candidates, including current elected officials and potential candidates should not be part of the calculation.
- Districts uphold the federal voting rights act and not reduce minority representation.
- All aspects of the process be public, including all meetings and documents.
- Citizens should be able to submit maps and provide public comment on any proposals.
So what’s to ensure that the Commission is any less biased than the legislature?
First, they won’t be politicians so they won’t have the same incentive to design districts based on political advantage. Second, and most importantly, they will be limited in their map-making by strict guidelines — keeping towns and neighborhoods together, designing compact districts, not using incumbent or challenger addresses or party registration or partisan voting history. These are currently not required.
In fact, the only requirements for drawing districts currently are 1) that districts must have roughly similar populations—plus or minus 5%, 2) that they are contiguous—in other words, that each district has a single footprint, 3) that they can’t violate the federal voting rights act, and 4) very small towns cannot be divided.
These requirements plus all the others would bind an independent redistricting commission. It would have much less discretion than the legislature currently has and would have the legal duty to conduct the redistricting process publicly and fairly.
Finally, all aspects of the Commission’s work would be open and public, unlike the legislature, which is not subject to the open meetings or public records laws. As they say, sunlight is the best disinfectant.
Has this worked in other states?
Yes. Eleven states conducted redistricting through a commission in 2002, and the average competitiveness of the districts, 70.4 percent, was significantly higher than the roughly 50 percent rate of competition produced by legislative bodies. In Massachusetts our competition rate has been a shockingly low 33 percent. That means that more than two-thirds of our elected officials have no challengers whatsoever.
Some of the redistricting commissions that exist in other states are not truly independent of the legislature. But several, including Iowa and Arizona, are. Iowa, which has had an independent redistricting process for several decades, has more competitive Congressional districts than California, New York, and Illinois combined, despite the latter states having 20 times more seats.