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As House Speaker Thomas Finneran goes before a special three- judge panel in U.S. District Court today to defend the state's drawing of legislative districts, it's time the state investigate the whole redistricting process. We have six or seven years to develop a nonpartisan approach to make elections and representation both open and democratic.
At the heart of the suit against Finneran is the claim that he redesigned his own seat, based in the Mattapan section of Boston, to dilute the growing numbers of minorities. The new district added three new precincts from suburban Milton, increasing the white population from 26 percent to 39 percent of total voters. Other districts - notably that of Charlestown Rep. Eugene O'Flaherty - have also come under fire.
The plaintiffs in the battle are the National Voting Rights Institute and other advocacy groups and minority voters. They claim the 2001 redistricting violates the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibits electoral systems that discriminate on the basis of race.
Whatever the merits of the case against Finneran, it's clear that drawing legislative borders in Massachusetts is a deeply political process. Redistricting is a highly competitive game of three- dimensional chess. Claims and counterclaims of different groups offer little room for maneuver for even the most open and reform- minded players.
In early 2000, the redistricting wars began when Finneran announced a new congressional district that imperiled the hold of U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan of Lowell on his 5th District seat.
Later, state Reps. Ruth Balser (D-Newton) and Kay Khan (D- Newton) cried foul at plans to pit them against each other. They claimed that Finneran was targeting them; Finneran responded that he was taking some of their voters to create minority districts nearby. Around the same time, then-Rep. Jarrett Barrios and others from Cambridge complained about that city's loss of its own representative.
In all of these cases, politicians made a common claim to have rights to an easy re-election. Terms like "my" seat were used as if the point of redistricting were to protect a lifetime tenure conferred by previous electoral victories.
As insiders noted at the time, the zero-sum game of redistricting was bound to hurt someone. At least some districts considered "safe" were bound to be changed, sometimes at the expense of making someone else safe. In fact, redistricting is notorious for creating odd alliances and fissures. Note, for example, the coalition of the Republican Party and NAACP across the nation to pack black voters in districts, ensuring more black and GOP seats but undermining old Democratic coalitions.
In the state where gerrymandering was invented, it might seem that political scrums are inevitable. Districts are, after all, inherently political.But even though the process seems inherently political, it can also be professional. If the state created a nonpartisan board to draw fair borders according to agreed-upon principles - and invited the public to scrutinize the borders prior to approval - the state could have an improved electoral system all around. Legislators could still have final say but they would choose from options that have the public's confidence.
The model for redistricting reform comes from Iowa, where the nonpartisan Legislative Services Bureau develops up to three plans for congressional and state districts. A bipartisan five-member advisory group advises the process. The state legislature has the power to accept or reject all of the plans, with whatever political considerations it deems appropriate. If the lawmakers reject all options, they must come up with their own plan by Sept. 1 or else the state's supreme court takes over. The governor has the right to veto plans.
Four criteria drive the bureau's process - districts must have equal population, need to be contiguous, should seek to contain counties and cities as whole as possible, and smaller districts should be "nested" inside larger ones. Finally, districts should be as compact as possible.
Iowa is known as one of the fairest political systems in America. Massachusetts could do worse than to adopt the Iowa approach. It's not good for anyone - for the two parties, racial or ethnic groups, advocates of various causes, or even key players like Tom Finneran - to have a system that perpetuates one-party rule and arouses the suspicions of so many.