Tuesday, April 05, 2005

The Gerrymander Rules

There is some interesting action in the Massachusetts State House today, as the Joint Committee on Election Laws considers a bill being advanced by the "Fair Districts Coalition" that would forever change the manner in which incumbents routinely protect their turf. Like it ever has a chance of passage.

The idea is that, when left to their own devices, elected leaders cannot help from practicing two fundamental vices: self-protection and revenge. Some times, these plans face court challenges, as was the case with the 2002 plan.

The latest proposal is for the establishment of a Redistricting Commission whose task is to formulate its own plan, independently and free of any outside influence. The Commission's plan would be submitted to the Legislature for acceptance or rejection. If the legislature turns down the Commission's plan three times, the Commission imposes a district map without legislative approval. This has been done in other states, and apparently works out fine.

But there are a few problems with such a plan here. Let's look at some of the observations made in a Boston Globe editorial today:

"We are concerned that the Common Cause draft specifically excludes incumbency protection as a factor for the commission. In some cases, long-term service can be an asset. Incumbents should not be shielded from challenge within their districts, but effective veterans should not be sacrificed needlessly to arbitrary mapping models. The courts have long acknowledged that incumbency protection can be a legitimate goal of redistricting.

But it is also true that, in practice, incumbency protection has been the overriding concern, especially for legislators loyal to the speaker and the Senate president. These leadership positions have too much institutional power and don't need the threat of redistricting reward and punishment. A constitutional amendment is needed to effect this change. The Legislature should advance this proposal and be ready for the 2010 census."

Here's one problem:

If you examine the current legislative districts, you will note that incumbency protection has been the only concern for as long as mapmakers have been in business. That's why Barney Franks Congressional District goes all the way from Newton to Dartmouth, and Jim McGovern's goes from Princeton to Fall River! Just look at the Massachusetts Senate District Map, and it is plain that something more than common sense was employed. The "mapping models" used to get to this point have been arbitrary, intentionally, for decades. For order and common sense to be restored to the district lines, incumbents are going to have to be "sacrificed" (this word has a number of connotations, all of them perfectly fine with me).

Here's a fun look at some of Common Cause's examples of the "Redistricting Hall of Fame."

Here's another problem:

The Commission proposed in the legislation is actually, uhh....independent (of the legislature, at least). Here's the make-up:

The remaining four members are chosen by the Commission, among a pool of twenty candidates supplied equally by the House Speak, Senate President, and the House and Senate Minority Leaders.

WOW! This is a nice effort but (a) I'd balk at the Boston Bar Association, (b) I never had any use for the LWV -- and can't understand why either of them are in there (oh...they're members of the Coalition?? I see. Clearly.)

If you sincerely believe that legislators in Massachusetts are going to give this fair and impartial consideration, you're in need of reprogramming.

Final problem (for the moment). This is a Constitutional Amendment. It has to be passed by a majority vote of two successive Constitutional Conventions before it is passed by the voters statewide.

The majority of House and Senate members of two successive Legislative Sessions. Many of whom have given "long-term service."

This will be fun to talk about for a while. But us "good government types" aren't holding our breaths.

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