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Burlington Union

Lawmakers seek to end gerrymandering

By Roberto Scalese

December 16, 2004

Members of a nearby legislative delegation are looking to change the face of political map making.

Arlington state representatives Jay Kaufman and James Marzilli and state Sen. Robert Havern, whose constituent communities include Burlington, are all listed as co-sponsors to redistricting legislation put forward for 2005. The legislation would create an independent commission to redraw the commonwealth's legislative and congressional districts after every 10-year census.

According to Common Cause Executive Director Pam Wilmot, an independent board would once and for all end that great Massachusetts tradition: Gerrymandering.

"The main goal is to take politics out of redistricting. It's perfectly legal now to cut a challenger out of a district," said Wilmot.

Kaufman said the legislation better serves democracy.

"I actually supported the ballot initiative as well in part because I think legislative redistricting belongs in the hands of people who look out for democracy and not themselves," said Kaufman of the ballot question that voters approved in a number of districts this fall.

Havern said politics are great for elections, but should not decide where elections are held or whom an elected official would represent.

"I think redistricting should be about fairness and mathematics and the politics should be kept to the campaigns," said Havern.

Wilmot said redistricting has been used in the past to maintain incumbency and to punish legislators who disagree with the majority party's leadership. Such abuses have happened famously under former Speaker of the House Tom Finneran and in other states, like Texas and Pennsylvania, said Wilmot.

"It is used as a tool to reward loyalty among legislators and punish those who don't toe the company line," she said.

Wilmot said an independent group's redistricting would return districts to a proper shape and character. Communities would largely be kept whole, and districts that span more than one town would connect with nearby towns that share other characteristics. That would change the map significantly in some areas, but it's nothing compared to the tortuous contortions districts have undergone under the current system, she said.

"Ask Chelmsford and Woburn if they've changed and they'd say, 'Yeah, we've changed and we don't like it,'" said Wilmot. "I don't think there would really be any harm and I don't think the map would change radically. Most districts have a core town and many districts already change radically."

Once the first, and more dramatic, change is made, ensuing redistricting will be relatively benign, said Wilmot.

The redistricting proposal is only one of several bills filed on behalf of Common Cause. Kaufman also filed legislation for instant runoff voting.

Instant runoff voting has voters rank their preference of candidate instead of choosing only one name. When the votes are counted, a candidate must amass a plurality of votes. If no candidate breaks the 50 percent barrier, the last-place finisher is removed from consideration and the second choice on those ballots are counted. This continues until someone breaks 50 percent.

Wilmot said it's as easy as voting now. Instead of filling out a bubble or drawing a line, a voter numbers candidates. If a voter doesn't want to, he or she doesn't have to.

"It just gives voters the ability to rank candidates in order of preference," said Wilmot. "It also ensures whoever wins has the majority's support."

"There are many steps we can take to enhance democracy. Instant runoff voting is one. Elimination of the electoral college is another. Limiting campaign spending and the length of campaigns. Providing for public access to fair and unmediated debates between candidates is another," said Kaufman.

Marzilli could not be reached for comment.

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