Gerrymandering began here; let's end it here / News / Boston Globe / Opinion / Op-ed / by Pamela Wilmot, 16 April 2004

IN A FEDERAL district court this morning, a three-judge panel will hear another round of oral arguments in the Boston redistricting case. Nearly two months ago, the court struck down the plan devised by the state House of Representatives, finding that it violated the federal Voting Rights Act by diluting minority representation in Boston. Some $3 million in taxpayer dollars already been spent defending a plan the court said turned "a blind eye to the racial implications of its single-minded effort to protect incumbents at virtually any social cost."

In its efforts to protect incumbents, the Massachusetts House is, sadly, not alone. Last year in Texas, Democratic legislators twice fled the state to block a redistricting plan that handed half a dozen Democratic congressional seats to Republicans. Texas had already completed its redistricting process in 2001. But Republican leaders, not satisfied with their gains, took another bite at the apple in 2003 to all but eliminate Democratic Party representation. A Pennsylvania plan was so lopsided that it is now before the US Supreme Court. There are many other examples.

In fact, the term "gerrymander" was coined in Massachusetts in 1812 when Governor Elbridge Gerry endorsed an electoral district said to look like a salamander. But with increasingly sophisticated technology that allows political map makers to slice and dice districts by street and by all types of voting demographics, gerrymandering is increasingly frequent and effective.

Yet gerrymandering -- unless it results in districts that are unequal in population or that, as in the Boston case, disenfranchise minority voters -- is not illegal. It should be. Beyond the clear unfairness, and the partisan advantages gerrymandering confers on the party in control of State Houses, it is killing democracy.

Congressional elections sport competitiveness rates on a par with elections Cuba and the old Soviet Union. In the 2002 congressional elections, only 40 out of the 435 House races were considered competitive. Only eight incumbents were defeated, four of whom were pitted against other incumbents. Here in Massachusetts, we are tied for last in the nation for legislative competitiveness for the past three election cycles, with more than two-thirds of our legislative seats uncontested. No state Senate incumbent has lost in four elections.

Although elections may be uncompetitive for many reasons -- including money in politics and the declining prestige of political service -- the role of incumbent protection through the redistricting process is undeniable. Thanks to the wizardry of computer programs that draw incumbent-safe districts with ease, the current process of redistricting is nothing short of democracy on its head: Elected officials picking their voters instead of the other way around.

There is a solution. Several states have successfully experimented with taking redistricting out of, or, in some cases, partially out of, self-interested legislative hands and placing it in an independent redistricting commission. Iowa has a nonpartisan body draw the district lines without respect to where incumbents live and then allows the Legislature to vote up or down on a series of plans. Arizona's newly established independent redistricting commission conducts the process from inception to completion.

Despite some shortcomings, the data are clear: Independent commissions produce fewer gerrymandered districts with more electoral competition. Eleven states conducted redistricting through a commission in 2002, and the average competitiveness of the districts, 70.4 percent, was significantly higher than the roughly 50 percent produced by legislative bodies. Iowa had more competitive congressional races than California, New York, and Illinois combined, despite the latter states having 20 times more seats.

The most difficult part of the equation is the task of selecting commissioners. Arizona uses its nonpartisan appellate court nominating commission to create a pool of candidates, none of whom can be an elected official or state employee. Iowa uses its nonpartisan tenured legislative research bureau, something we don't have in Massachusetts. Enforceable redistricting criteria such as compactness and competition, along with equal population and minority representation, are key to keeping communities intact and rationalizing the process. In addition, the process must be a public one. Paradoxically, technology may provide part of the answer by allowing voting rights groups or even high school students to draft and submit plans for review.

Massachusetts should take the best of other states' ideas and create a more open and fair process for drawing congressional and legislative districts. Political gerrymandering was pioneered here, and we should be one of the first states to end the practice. In doing so we can turn democracy right-side up again, with voters selecting their representatives and not the other way around.

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