It’s official. The U.S. Census Bureau has reported its findings and Massachusetts is set to lose one congressional seat. It is the first time Mass. has lost a seat since 1990. Texas and Florida are the big winners adding four and two seats, respectively.
It is often said redistricting turns the idea of democracy on its head by allowing leaders to choose their voters, instead of the other way around.
Here’s how the process is supposed to work.
Massachusetts House and Senate committees of well-meaning legislators sit down and draw district maps for both congressional and legislative offices. Each district is supposed to make geographic sense and have roughly the same number of residents to preserve the one-person, one-vote standard. Hence, current districts will be redrawn to reflect population shifts in the state.
In addition, the Voting Rights Act limits how districts can be drawn in many states. (The Voting Rights Act is supposed to ensure that the new lines do not dilute the voting power of minorities.) Depending on which party controls the state’s government, redistricting can be turned to its advantage. With Democrats in control they have the power to pack Republican voters into districts with heavy Democratic registration, nullifying the power of the GOP vote and potentially making it impossible for a Republican to win. And where new lines are drawn, court challenges often follow.
But let’s face it, as a practical matter both Democrats and Republicans often use redistricting as an opportunity to gerrymander districts for their own political advantage.
While one would think the process would be relatively simple in a state that is dominated by one political party, don’t hold your breath. The last time lawmakers waded into the redistricting debate, the process ended up in federal court with former House Speaker Tom Finneran ultimately pleading guilty to an obstruction-of-justice charge in a civil rights redistricting case. This time around, redistricting will prove particularly vexing given that the Commonwealth will be losing one congressional seat.
Forming nine districts from 10 could pit Democratic incumbents against each other in primaries, though there is the potential of retirements. Alternatively, a few of the current U.S. representatives might choose to run against Republican U.S. Sen. Scott Brown. But without a retirement or someone running for Senate, the process will be much like musical chairs where once the music stops there will be one person left standing.
How does the process work?
A special legislative committee, led by state Rep. Michael Moran, D-Brighton, and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, D-Amherst, will handle redistricting. The remaining 20 House seats and six Senate spots on the committee are expected to be filled soon. Any proposal needs the backing of the full Legislature and the governor.
A politician trying to serve the public expects to do what’s best and fair for the most people . But fairness, unfortunately, often is in the eye of the beholder. Cynically, some politicians aren’t trying to serve the public; they are focused on electability. Give politicians the power to design maps and you can’t help but come up with districts that are based on gaining power, not balance.
The political process in the U.S. filters out the more altruistic politicians at the lower levels with redistricting becoming, by its nature, an insiders’ game.
Here’s what should happen.
Open the process.
Create a nonpartisan commission to redraw the lines. This would remove most of the redistricting process from the hands of legislators and put it in the hands of retired judges, who would apply meaningful standards of fairness to redrawing districts based on the new census data.
Republicans are just as guilty as Democrats when it comes to abusing the redistricting process. Lawmakers have historically jealously guarded their power over the process. However, the voters spoke on Nov. 2. While they overwhelmingly rejected the concepts of deficit spending and expanded government, they also called for an end to partisan politics and the gridlock that accompanies it. Politics has become a zero-sum game that has become all about winning. While politicians may win, ironically, it is the voters who lose.
Let’s listen to the voters and begin the process of regaining the trust and confidence of the electorate.
Jon Golnik, a Republican, lost his bid to unseat Democratic Congresswoman Niki Tsongas in November.