Playing offense on redistricting

Playing offense on redistricting

The last time lawmakers sat down to redraw the state’s legislative districts, they protected three white incumbents by sequestering black votes in Boston, an action that put them on the losing end of a federal lawsuit, and eventually ended the House speaker’s political career. It was the third consecutive redistricting effort to fall to a voting rights challenge.

The current round of redistricting is shaping up much differently – in large part because sweeping technological changes have allowed voting rights advocates to play offense, not defense.

A legislative committee unveiled new House and Senate districts this week. The House’s proposed plan would double the number of majority-minority districts, from 10 to 20. The Senate’s proposal would add a majority-minority district around Springfield to the two currently in Boston. Earlier this year, minority voting groups presented the Legislature with plans that would have created 22 majority-minority legislative districts; the Legislature did them one better, creating 23.

Voting rights advocates got different results this time around, in part, because they were working with a legislative redistricting committee that welcomed their participation. (The federal judges who threw out the House’s 2002 redistricting plan pointedly noted that the former House redistricting chair, Rep. Thomas Petrolati, “neither solicited nor accepted views from community leaders.”)

The redistricting committee’s openness was only one part of the equation, though. The real game changer was the ability of outside groups to give the committee specific redistricting proposals ahead of, instead of after, the release of the committee’s new legislative maps.

In previous redistricting rounds, asymmetric information put voting rights groups in a reactive stance: They had to wait to see the Legislature’s proposed districts, and then seek judicial remedy. They didn’t have access to the kind of redistricting data that lawmakers did.

The redistricting effort that followed the 2000 Census was mapped out using proprietary software. The challenge to that redistricting plan, and the obstruction of justice indictment that followed, turned, in part, on access to that proprietary redistricting software. A three-judge federal panel alleged that former House Speaker Thomas Finneran exerted control over redistricting because Finneran’s in-house counsel had redistricting software installed on his computer in the speaker’s office suite.

A coalition of Republicans and minority activists successfully altered the redistricting plan following the 1990 Census because their proposed districts conformed more closely to the Voting Rights Act’s one-person, one-vote standard. They beat the Democratic-controlled redistricting committee because they were using a computer to draw their maps, and the other side was coloring on paper with a crayon.

This time around, technology leveled the gap between the lawmakers driving the redistricting process and the advocates hoping to shape that process. Redistricting software is no longer proprietary. It isn’t confined to a computer in the House speaker’s office. It’s free and open to anyone with an Internet connection. Redistricting advocates were able to offer specific plans, and set achievable goals, because redistricting data and tools are now in the public domain.

“Minority empowerment groups were actively engaged at the front end,” says Dan Winslow, a state representative and general counsel for Fair Districts Mass. Winslow previously helped lead the Republican and minority coalition that challenged redistricting plans in 1987 and 1992.

Winslow says that free and open redistricting data allowed groups like his to put redistricting plans on the table at the beginning of the process, not the end, and to set expectations for the legislative committee to follow. “We drew a legal line in the sand,” he says. “There are dozens of legal plans, but we put the parameters out there. We were able to show them what could be done. To double the seats where persons of color constitute a majority, that’s huge.”

The technological upending of redistricting may just be beginning. Lawmakers resisted calls earlier this year to turn over the decennial redistricting process to an independent redistricting commission, arguing, in part, that an independent body would be undemocratic and unaccountable.

Meet the Author

Paul McMorrow

Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

About Paul McMorrow

Paul McMorrow comes to CommonWealth from Banker & Tradesman, where he covered commercial real estate and development. He previously worked as a contributing editor to Boston magazine, where he covered local politics in print and online. He got his start at the Weekly Dig, where he worked as a staff writer, and later news and features editor. Paul writes a frequent column about real estate for the Boston Globe’s Op-Ed page, and is a regular contributor to BeerAdvocate magazine. His work has been recognized by the City and Regional Magazine Association, the New England Press Association, and the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies. He is a Boston University graduate and a lifelong New Englander.

But because the Legislature is working with the same data that’s available to every state resident, there’s no reason that residents can’t just take over redistricting themselves. That was the conclusion of the Democratic-aligned group Ohioans for Fair Districts, which recently sued for the right to put Ohio’s redistricting plan on the ballot, as a statewide referendum. The state supreme court unanimously backed the redistricting referendum effort this week.