If there ever was a year that underscored the need to protect the democratic process, it was the past one: Lawmakers across the country have pushed a flood of measures to restrict some voters’ access to the polls, former President Trump’s efforts to muck with the Census count to give Republicans a political advantage are still reverberating, and his Big Lie about election fraud resulted in a deadly insurrection.
And while a host of voting rights reforms are desperately needed at all levels of government, there is one move states, including Massachusetts, can immediately take now: create independent redistricting commissions to redraw state and congressional district lines.
In Massachusetts, the birthplace of the gerrymander, the move is long overdue. Though Beacon Hill is lopsidedly Democratic, the power that comes from wielding the pen that redraws district lines is antidemocratic in a nonpartisan way — it protects incumbents over challengers. The lines determine how much power voters’ ballots carry, how much protection incumbent lawmakers enjoy, how difficult it will be for candidates from communities split between districts to run for office, and whether districts truly reflect a community’s demographic complexion.
Recall it was a civil lawsuit charging that 2001 redistricting maps were drawn to protect white incumbents at the expense of voters of color that led to former Massachusetts House Speaker Tom Finneran’s indictment for perjury and obstruction of justice.
It is precisely that political power that has prevented a perennially-filed bill that would establish an independent commission to redraw district lines, but still give lawmakers the ability to review redistricting plans before they are enacted, from going anywhere in the State House.
“Elected officials are loath to give up that power, and that includes redistricting. That’s always something that has a direct impact on each of our legislative districts,” said State Senator James Eldridge, sponsor of the bill, in a phone interview.
Now, as Massachusetts and other states engage in the decennial reapportionment process following the release of federal census data, the need for state-level protections is stronger than ever. Less than two year ago, the US Supreme Court stripped citizens of the ability to bring lawsuits challenging partisan gerrymandering.
The state made some strides to create a more democratic and transparent process for redrawing district lines after the 2010 census, with a process that allowed greater public access to information about the district redrawing process, including holding public hearings and releasing proposed new maps before they were adopted.
But it is important that Massachusetts and other states that have yet to create independent bodies to oversee that process do more, to prevent cities and towns from being carved up in ways that diminish or destroy their political clout, to protect the ability of candidates of color and those who come from outside of the political establishment to compete, and to ensure greater transparency and accountability to the process. An independent commission would bring the process out of the dark committee rooms of the State House, and into the sunlight.
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