Public backs independent redistricting

MassINC poll shows strong support for change in redistricting process

Massachusetts residents strongly favor empowering an independent redistricting commission and restraining the state Legislature’s redistricting powers, according to a new MassINC poll.

 

Overall, 62 of respondents to the poll said an independent commission should be charged with the decennial redrawing of legislative and congressional boundaries, while just 23 percent said the Legislature should remain in charge of the process.

“People want a process that’s free of political shenanigans,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “They find it difficult to believe the Legislature can deliver on that, given its track record, its history, the political nature of the institution. The way business typically gets done in a centralized-way, they have reasons to be skeptical.”

Currently, a joint legislative committee is charged with redrawing state and congressional political boundaries to comport with Census data. Arguing that the legislative-led effort effectively puts lawmakers in charge of selecting their own voters, Wilmot’s group has been advocating for the establishment of an independent redistricting body for years. That effort recently got a boost from Secretary of State William Galvin, who said in December that state lawmakers should remove themselves from direct control over the boundary-drawing process.

The proposal for an independent redistricting commission has gained little traction on Beacon Hill, however. House Speaker Robert DeLeo and Senate President Therese Murray have already announced the committee that will lead the next round of redistricting. The current effort is attracting heightened scrutiny because Massachusetts will lose one of its 10 US House seats in 2012, setting up a possible showdown between members of the all-Democratic state delegation.

“There’s no democracy in a commission,” said Rep. Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat who serves as House chair of the joint redistricting committee. “I don’t believe a nameless, faceless panel should be making these decisions. It’s not democratic.”

Moran said the Legislature’s redistricting committee would hold at least 10 public hearings – one in each current congressional district – and would hear “hundreds of hours” of testimony. “At the end of the day, we will do more and be more transparent than any commission could be.”

State Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, Moran’s Senate counterpart, attributed public support for an independent boundary-drawing panel to misguided public perception. “I’m totally open to the idea of an independent commission, but I don’t drive policy on perception. I drive it on facts,” said Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat. “There have been no studies done, no evidence presented that shows it’s a better result. We have this discussion every 10 years. We ask, can you come in and show the Legislature evidence that there will be a better result? The advocates don’t do any follow-up. They just come in 10 years later.”

Rosenberg speculated that the idea of an independent commission has attracted support because “the public has very little confidence in legislatures, overall. They have confidence in their individual legislators, but not in the bodies. Any question that’s framed against the Legislature, you’ll get the most negative response possible. That’s just the nature of it.”

The poll showed support for an independent redistricting commission cutting across geographic boundaries, and across age, gender, and party affiliation. Republicans and independents showed greater support for an independent commission than Democrats did, but even poll respondents who identified themselves as Democrats backed the idea of an independent commission by a nearly two-to-one margin.

Seventy-eight percent of poll respondents who said they viewed the state Legislature unfavorably said they want to take redistricting powers away from Beacon Hill. But, notably, even those who expressed a favorable view of the Legislature backed an independent redistricting commission, by a margin of 54 percent to 35 percent. Generally, the wealthier and more educated poll respondents were, the more they favored an independent commission.

The MassINC Polling Group survey was based on telephone interviews with 400 state residents. The poll has a margin of error of 4.9 percentage points.

Lawmakers defeated legislation that would have established an independent redistricting commission last session. Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr will file similar legislation for the upcoming session.  

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.

“Fair and reasonable legislative districts are essential to the rights of every citizen of our democracy, and to the franchise of every voter,” Tarr said. “Given this importance, the size and structure of our congressional and legislative districts deserve the scrutiny and consideration that an independent redistricting committee would add to the process that has been used in the past.”

The redistricting effort that followed the 2000 Census was challenged in federal court. Plaintiffs in that case argued that the Legislature’s new House districts violated the Voting Rights Act because they clustered minority voters into so-called super-packed districts while protecting white incumbents. The court agreed, and ordered new districts to be drawn. A federal investigation into the redistricting lawsuit snared House Speaker Thomas Finneran on perjury charges; Finneran ultimately pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in conjunction with his testimony in the case.