A campaign to take redistricting away from lawmakers

A SYSTEM THAT has “turned democracy on its head”—that’s what Pam Wilmot, leader of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, calls the redistricting process: politicians huddling behind closed doors, drawing district lines most favorable to their own re-election prospects. “Rather than us, as voters, picking them,” she says, “they choose us.”

Pam Wilmot says politicians shouldn’t pick their own voters.

Common Cause and a coalition of like-minded groups say it’s time to turn democracy right side up. They’ve launched a campaign for an amendment to the state constitution that would strip state lawmakers of authority to set the boundaries of their own districts and those of the state’s congressional seats. The amendment would create an independent commission charged with drawing the districts, a system now used in a handful of other states, and one that backers say is gaining support across the country.

This reform impulse comes on the heels of redistricting ruckuses in several states. Legislative district lines are typically redrawn every 10 years, following the federal census. But in 2003, Texas Republicans, after winning control of both houses of the state Legislature in addition to the governor’s office, redrew congressional district lines—with a strong GOP bent—just two years after the decennial redistricting. The new map resulted in four Democratic incumbents losing their seats in last year’s election—though not before Democratic lawmakers fled to motels across the state line in Oklahoma in a desperate, if comical, bid to stall the process by depriving the Legislature of a quorum.

“That was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” says Harvard Law School professor Heather Gerken.

But it did not put an end to the line-drawing shenanigans. In March of this year, Republicans in Georgia made moves to pull off a similar mid-decade redistricting, while Democrats in Illinois flirted briefly with the idea of a partisan power grab of their own. “There was always sort of a gentlemen’s agreement about how far one would go [in redistricting], and people have abandoned it,” says Gerken, an election law and redistricting expert.

Though many blame the trend on increased polarization between Republicans and Democrats, Massachusetts has witnessed its share of mapmaking mishegaas, even without vigorous two-party competition. In 2001, then-House Speaker Tom Finneran set off an uproar when he unveiled a redistricting plan—later abandoned—that would have wiped out the Merrimack Valley-based district of US Rep. (and fellow Democrat) Marty Meehan, with whom he had clashed over the Clean Elections Law. Then, the redistricting of state representative seats approved by the Legislature was overturned in federal court when it was challenged by voting-rights groups alleging that it unconstitutionally diluted minority voting strength. The fallout from that case has continued, with Finneran’s testimony in the lawsuit becoming the subject of a perjury probe by the US Attorney’s office. None of this has done much for the Legislature’s legitimacy in setting political boundaries.

“The process has lent itself to manipulation, and not always in the best interest of voters,” says Sen. Richard Moore, an Uxbridge Democrat who is the chief legislative sponsor of the proposed constitutional amendment.

Under the proposal, redistricting would be handled by a nine-member commission, with the chief justice of the Supreme Judicial Court, the secretary of state, the governor, the Massachusetts League of Women Voters, and a major civil rights organization appointing one member each. The Senate majority leader, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the minority leaders in each chamber would also each submit five nominees, from which the original five commission appointees would select the four remaining members.

The amendment could be taken up at the next Constitutional Convention—a joint session of the House and Senate—which is likely to take place this fall. But with the ongoing gay marriage debate expected to take center stage, the redistricting issue may be put off until 2006. To advance, the amendment needs to win majority support in the 200-member Legislature in two successive legislative sessions, after which it would go on the ballot for approval by state voters, in 2008 at the earliest.

Hedging their bets on legislators’ willingness to cede control over redistricting, amendment supporters might shift tactics later this year, pursuing the amendment via initiative petition. Under that route, if proponents gather the requisite number of signatures (about 68,000), the amendment requires the support of just one-quarter of the Legislature (50 members) in each legislative session in order to be put before the voters.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

The amendment filed by Moore already has 55 legislative cosponsors, not a bad start for a plan that would strip lawmakers of power over the one thing many of them hold most dear. Majority support is another matter—though if legislative resistance is building, Moore says he hasn’t seen it.

“They might be grumbling,” says Moore, “but they’re not telling me.”