Testimony in Support of S. 51, H. 567
Legislative Amendments and legislation to establish an Independent Redistricting Commission
Pamela H. Wilmot, Executive Director Common Cause Massachusetts
Joint Committee on Election Laws
April 28, 2015
In 2005 Common Cause collected approximately 60,000 certified signatures from voters across the Commonwealth to bring the issue of establishing an independent redistricting commission to the Constitutional Convention. These voters, and many more like them, believe that the Fair Districts proposal is the appropriate way to reform the redistricting process. In 2004 we also qualified public policy questions on redistricting reform in 15 state representative districts, comprising 28 cities and towns across the Commonwealth. The questions asked voters whether they wanted to remove the authority to draw congressional and legislative electoral boundaries from the state legislature and instead place it in the hands of an independent redistricting commission. All of the questions passed—by an average of more than 67%. Along the way, we spoke with 100,000 voters, held about 50 public forums and meetings, and distributed over 100,000 pieces of literature. Furthermore, a 2011 poll found that 62% of Massachusetts residents would prefer that an independent commission redraw congressional and legislative districts.
Since then, Massachusetts has gone through another round of redistricting. Unlike previous cycles, the 2011 redistricting process was excellent. The redistricting committee held a dozen hearings across the state, built a terrific website for the public to submit comments and maps, released preliminary maps long before the vote and listened to the feedback received. The process was open and transparent. And the results reflected that commitment to democracy. Districts became more compact, minority voters increased their representation significantly, and incumbents were even pitted together not for political payback, but to achieve better representation for the voters. The Center for Public Integrity, which reviewed redistricting in all 50 states, gave the process an “A” grade and we agree that the grade is deserved.
The 2011 redistricting process shows that, if motivated, the legislature can do a good job and can overcome the pressures to use the process for political gain. Unfortunately, this has not been the case in the recent past in Massachusetts or in many other states during the current cycle. We hope that the legislature will again be able to repeat and refine the process established in 2011 in 2021.
One way the success of 2011 can be expanded is to adopt the legislation before you, which creates a non-partisan seven- member independent redistricting commission, guided by strict criteria for fair-minded map-making and for openness. The proposed commission is selected by seven different individuals in order to maximize participation by both those inside and outside the political process, ensure that many view-points and areas of expertise will be included, and reduce the potential for political manipulation. Furthermore, the commission will reflect the diversity of the Commonwealth’s population in order to ensure that all groups are treated fairly when districts are drawn.
While the composition of the commission is the easiest part of the proposal to scrutinize, the most important part is the criteria for drawing maps and the openness with which the Commission must operate. S. 51 requires, as does current law, that districts be roughly equal in population (plus or minus 5%) and contiguous. In addition it requires that they must, to the maximum extent feasible:
(1) adhere to Federal Law including the Federal Voting Rights Act;
(2) respect town and city borders;
(3) keep well-defined neighborhoods intact;
(4) group communities of interest together;
(5) maintain geographic compactness.
In addition, districts cannot be drawn for the purpose of diluting the voting strength of a language or racial minority group, augmenting or diluting the voting strength of a political party, or any individual. Addresses of any individual, including any officeholder, and party affiliation or voting history of residents of the Commonwealth cannot be considered in drawing district lines except for the purposes of determining whether there has been vote dilution of minority populations. These criteria will ensure that redistricting is about representing the communities of Massachusetts rather than about who will be “taken care of” and who will be sacrificed.
Another groundbreaking aspect of the proposal is that, unlike the legislature, all of the commission’s actions must be public and all records available for review. Citizens may submit maps of their own and the Commission’s proposals will be available for public comment before they are referred to the Legislature for a vote. These criteria will make a significant divergence in past practice and will inalterably change the process for the better. Sunlight, as they say, is a powerful disinfectant.
The proposal includes legislative input in a variety of ways. In addition to the four appointments by legislative leaders and opportunity for input during the public comments period, like the system used in Iowa, H. 567 gives the legislature the ability to approve or reject, without amendment, up to three different plans. The fourth plan would become law without approval in the amendment. In Iowa, which has had a similar process for more than 30 years and four redistricting cycles, the first or second plans have always been accepted.
Redistricting commissions of all sorts have worked well in other states and they can work here too. To be sure, some are more independent than others, but aggregate data is clear. Eleven states conducted redistricting through a commission in 2002, and the average competitiveness of the districts, 70.4%, was significantly higher than the roughly 50% produced by legislative bodies. Compare that data to Massachusetts’ competitiveness rate of around 30%. The state with one of the most successful independent commissions, Iowa, had more competitive races than California, New York, and Illinois combined, despite the latter states having 20 times more seats. Commissions have been overturned less than comparable state legislatures on voting rights grounds, although, there is variation based on criteria and commission composition.
The most common argument in opposition is straight cynicism. From this view, politics is so bad that there is nothing that can be done to improve it. Bad people will get on the commission and manipulate it for themselves and their friends. There are many clear responses to this argument:
- independent commission have worked in other states and have effectively insulated the redistricting process from politics at its worst;
- the commissioners are selected from a variety of sources, they must take an oath to apply the criteria fairly, agree not to run for office in the districts they draw, and may be removed for improper conduct;
- the criteria limit the discretion of the commission well beyond the current criteria;
- all of the commission’s work will be done in public and subject to review in a way that is currently not available in the legislature.
Another argument is that the commission will be less accountable than the legislature. In fact, there is little accountability now. Redistricting is something that is largely in the control of legislative leadership, and there is no way for voters to assign praise or blame beyond the redistricting chairs and top legislative leaders. Voters would be irrational to hold their own legislator “accountable” by voting against them for something that someone else did.
Moreover, who were the people of Chelmsford going to vote against in 2002? Their district was completely obliterated and became part of four others. Or what about the voters in Mansfield, or Georgetown? Because of redistricting, these towns are no longer voting blocks and cannot vote for a Representative of their choice. In fact, that is the very power of redistricting, to decide which set of voters will be able to elect representative of their choice. Because the Commission must do all of its work publicly and will be held to stricter standards for map-making, it will actually be much more accountable than the legislature.
Both Common Cause and the League of Women Voters have supported the creation of an independent redistricting commission for 30 years. Massachusetts pioneered the practice of political gerrymandering and we can be one of the first states to end the practice. At stake here is the very health of our democracy.