Legislature's role in redistricting

Cape Cod Times (Hyannis, MA) - Friday, March 18, 2011
Redistricting is complex and requires the knowledge and feedback of the entire community to get it right. The goal is to create districts with populations as equal as possible without discriminating against particular groups. Other factors also come into play, such as keeping cities and towns in the same district to the extent possible and looking at the commonwealth's federal interests. The Legislature is working hard to address all these issues and keep redistricting a fair and open process. 

Since the 1800s, the Massachusetts Constitution has charged the Legislature with redistricting based on changes in population in the state. The Legislature has carried out this task with the check of the governor's veto power and the court's ability to review the legality of the plan. While this process has not been perfect, it has evolved over time into a workable and successful model. 

In the past few months, some have suggested that an independent redistricting commission should handle this work rather than the Legislature. While some states have taken this route, it has not led to better outcomes or a more transparent process. In the 2000 redistricting cycle, nearly three-quarters of states with independent redistricting commissions were sued over their plans, while only half of legislatively created plans were challenged. The plan crafted by the Massachusetts Senate was not challenged by any group in court. 

In fact, the Massachusetts federal district court held up the Senate's process as an example of how to effectively reach out to the community and listen to many different voices. The bottom line is that independent commissions have no accountability and are beyond any consequences for creating flawed districts. In contrast, legislators approving new maps have to answer the tough questions and stand by their records when they run for re-election. 

For this latest redistricting effort, the House and Senate created a special committee on redistricting to carry out the process. The committee has studied the history, laws and court cases concerning redistricting for more than a year now in preparation for the work ahead. The Senate has hired outside counsel to ensure equal and fair representation of the minority population and political interests in the proposed districts. 

Sen. Stanley Rosenberg, who led our successful redistricting efforts 10 years ago, is again heading up operations in the Senate. He has begun the process of reaching out to many different groups in an effort to hear all voices and craft a fair plan. He has contacted Republicans and Democrats, government watchdog and accountability groups, and leaders throughout the state to get their input. 

This process will continue when the special committee holds a dozen public hearings across the state (including hearings in Brockton, Barnstable and Fall River) to learn about the changes that have taken place in communities over the past 10 years. This transparency measure will give the public numerous opportunities to listen and testify, providing valuable information and insights about their communities and how the new electoral maps might affect them. 

Additionally, the special committee has created a website, www.malegislature.gov/redistricting, to help the public and Legislature talk to each other — the first time the public has ever had such access. The committee has posted much of its information online to help citizens follow along, including the relevant laws, court cases and history of redistricting. Videos of all the hearings will be put online, as well. Most important, anyone can submit testimony, comments or even their own maps to the committee to help inform the process. 

The participation of all people and parties in the redistricting process is encouraged and welcomed. The redistricting process is complex, but the dedication and involvement of legislators and citizens alike will help determine the best and fairest way to draw our new maps. 

Therese Murray is president of the Massachusetts Senate and represents the Plymouth and Barnstable District.