August 18th. 2005,
Published in Cambridge Chronicle

I live in Ward 9 of Cambridge in the far western Cambridge Highlands. Politically, as far as the Massachusetts House of Representatives is concerned we are in Watertown which dominates the 29th Middlesex District. The district is barely legal even under the existing rules: there is only about 300 yards of boundary between Cambridge and Watertown where real people from the two towns live side by side. The remaining boundary (required to ensure contiguity) is made up of Mount Auburn Cemetery. I suppose in the bad old days when tombstones voted, the legality of the district was on more solid ground.

This district of mine is symptomatic of the mess that the Massachusetts redistricting process currently enjoys. A quick look at the map of the current boundaries of the Massachusetts Congressional Districts shows that important criteria are not met: districts do have roughly equal numbers, but they are not compact and they have little community of interest what do the voters of preppie Needham have in common with the voters of blue-collar Fall River (or western Cambridge with Watertown for that matter).

Currently, district boundaries are drawn by the legislators. As we have seen, they have made a mess of it. Unless we devise a better method of setting District boundaries, our troubles will come back at the beginning of the next decade when the new Census is issued and the redesign of districts will have to take place. We need to think through an alternative to the Legislature devising the boundaries.

Think back to when you were a child, if a piece of cake had to be divided between you and a friend, you quickly figured out that the way to get a fair distribution was for one person to cut the piece of cake in half and for the second person to decide which piece to take. That kept the cutter honest and made sure that two equal pieces emerged. It is not like that when it comes to choosing the boundaries of political districts in Massachusetts, the big brothers and sisters on Beacon Hill design and choose the boundaries it is almost like the politicians choose the voters rather than, as it should be, the voters choosing their representatives. As a result Massachusetts has almost the least competitive election in the US. It is very clear that redistricting is much too important to be left to the politicians who act as the political heirs of Elbridge Gerry to create districts to suit their convenience.

There must be a better, fairer way of setting the boundaries of electoral districts. There are several! Federalism is, after all, a source of experimentation so we can see a number of alternatives existing across different states.

Common Cause and its allies are suggesting a model based on the Electoral Commissions of Iowa and Arizona. A committee of 7 persons is charged with undertaking the redistricting every ten years. Four of these are partisan (selected from a pool of 20 generated by the Senate and House Majority and Minority Leaders) but are NOT current, past or potential office holders, the other three are experts selected by the Governor, the Secretary of State, and the Chief Justice. This small committee then designs one or more plans based on the usual criteria: equal numbers of voters, contiguity, compactness, community of interest, and adherence to the Voting Rights Act. One of these plans is then adopted by a simple majority vote.

This process of designing the boundaries has the advantage of allowing politically motivated input to the system through the selection of the commissioners but keeps the politicians at arm's length when it comes to the design and decision. The least of many evils!

We are five years away from the next Census and the need for redistricting. If we start now, at the pace at which the political wheels turn in Massachusetts, we might have just the new procedures in place for 2011. But we have to get started NOW. Common Cause is proposing a ballot initiative to ensure that the question of Fair Redistricting is taken up by the legislature.

Maybe then, Ward 9 in Cambridge will be grouped with other Cambridge Wards in its legislative representation.

See on line version in the Cambridge Chronicle.