As state lawmakers debate redistricting, legislation to rework system makes its way through Beacon Hill

The Massachusetts Statehouse. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

By Nada Shalash
Boston University News Service

BOSTON — Typically, the Massachusetts legislature redraws districts after every census, but that might change. New legislation that would create an independent redistricting commission is working its way through the Statehouse.

If passed, S.16 would amend the state constitution and replace the current system in which state legislators draw and vote on district lines used for elections without public input. 

The commission could potentially decrease the power of the legislature in redistricting, increase citizens’ participation and reduce partisan gerrymandering.

The amendment’s presenter, state Sen. James Eldridge, said advocates of non-legislators participating in redistricting are frustrated.

“Some cities and towns are cut into three, four or five different districts,” Eldridge said. “That not only creates frustration and confusion but it also effectively prohibits or limits a person from such a community from running for office because their base of support is sort of automatically smaller.”

According to the bill’s text, the commission would consist of four members nominated by the legislature, with equal representation of Republicans and Democrats, and three members nominated by the governor, attorney general and secretary of the commonwealth. The latter three nominees would include a retired judge, political science professor and civil rights expert. 

All commission members would be state residents who have not held public office within the last five years.

According to Eldridge, the commission would draw a district plan that would be subject to public comment before sending it to the legislature’s Special Joint Committee on redistricting. The committee would either approve it or request changes, then send it back to the commission. The commission can either make the changes or take no action. 

If approved by both parties, the plan would go to the legislature for a majority vote to become law. 

Eldridge said this hybrid model is a compromise allowing for both citizen and legislator involvement in redistricting. 

He said he has pushed for an independent commission for several years but that the issue takes on new importance this year as data from the 2020 census comes in. 

Lawmakers responsible for drawing district lines based on the census have already started their work. The legislature’s Special Joint Committee on Redistricting met for the first time in 2021 on Wednesday. The U.S. Census Bureau plans on releasing the results of the 2020 census later this month. 

Eldridge said it’s critical for voters to think about the redistricting process now as opposed to in the fall, as much of the districting plans will be finished by then.

Connie Cook led similar efforts in Michigan through Voters Not Politicians, an organization that gathered 425,000 signatures to propose citizen-led redistricting through a ballot initiative. The ballot initiative passed in 2018 with 61% of the vote. 

Cook said many people were initially skeptical of citizen-led redistricting. 

“Their reaction was always, ‘well the legislators know what they’re doing, they’re experts,’” Cook said. “But in fact, they don’t. They have no idea how to draw maps. They hire a consultant and then they tell the consultant what they want.”

Maxwell Palmer, a professor of political science at Boston University, said the commission might remove power from the legislature, but he is unsure whether it will be nonpartisan.

“I am a bit of a commission skeptic in general,” Palmer said. “They have worked well in some places some of the time, but they surely don’t remove partisanship from the process.” 

He noted that one potential reason is disagreement over who is perceived as truly nonpartisan. 

“We don’t have a lot of agreement anymore in American politics about who those truly independent, nonpartisan people are,” Palmer said.

Palmer also said his research provides an alternative redistricting method, suggesting that nonpartisan commissions might not be the best solution to gerrymandering.

“If we have a process that both Democrats and Republicans in public and the legislature think of as fair and not hurting their party, then the outcome map that results would be seen as more legitimate and fair as well,” Palmer said. 

Eldridge’s amendment has already been referred to the legislature’s Joint Committee on Election Laws for debate.

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