The crisis in Congress is, in part, the product of districts that were drawn to protect incumbents; in such districts, the only potential threat comes from within the member’s own party. Thus, there is fear of deviating even slightly from the party line. And such caution leads to gridlock.
Massachusetts is far from the worst offender, but its own redistricting process leaves much to be desired. With the next decennial census still seven years off, the state has more than enough time to establish a fair, independent, and nonpartisan commission to redraw congressional and legislative districts in 2020. Post-census redistricting ought to be a transparent process of ensuring that every vote counts and that natural communities can be collectively represented. The most recent redistricting in Massachusetts caused no scandals, but the process in the past has often been an occasion for political arm-twisting and plotting. The reelection of influential incumbents and the aggrandizement of whichever party controls the redistricting process too easily take priority over the mapping of districts that are coherent, logical, and compact.
One byproduct of the existing system is the common assumption that electoral districts are invariably designed to advance the interest of individual politicians. Another is the resentment of politicians who don’t think their interests were sufficiently advanced. Former US Representative Barney Frank accused Beacon Hill lawmakers of redrawing congressional districts in order to benefit fellow congressmen Edward Markey and Stephen Lynch, thereby pressuring him not to run for reelection. “Markey and Lynch were protected, and the rest of us got what they didn’t want,” he complained.
Real redistricting reform begins with an acknowledgment that the political interests of parties and politicians should play no role in drawing legislative lines. Massachusetts should follow the lead of states that have entrusted the job of drawing district boundaries to a neutral, nonpartisan agency. Under Iowa’s rigorous system, the mapmaking commission is required by law to draw districts that are equal in population, that respect town and county lines, and that are as compact and contiguous as possible. It is not permitted to factor party registration, voting history, or the addresses of incumbents into its calculations.
Two years ago, when new districts were needed following the 2010 Census, Senate President Therese Murray refused to consider an overhaul of the old process on the grounds that it was “a little too late” to change the system. That excuse no longer holds water. There is no reason Massachusetts shouldn’t adopt something modeled on Iowa’s fair and sensible system — no reason other than incumbents’ desire to pick their voters, rather than the other way around.