Letting the Voters Decide

Testimony to a Massachusetts Committee on Redistricting

Howard Fain

    The task of the committee, as I understand it, is to redraw the boundary lines describing 160 districts from which the Massachusetts House of Representatives shall be elected. That part is easy. What is impossible is the second part of your charge, that the districts be drawn so as to fairly represent the political interests of the people who live in these districts.

It is tough enough that so many people around this state will be suspicious of your intent, what with the historical tendency of parties in power to "pack" and "crack" their way to continued district domination, with a side glance towards the protection of incumbents. I have no intention to speak to that subject tonight, and assume the most wholesome intent on your part. But you still can't do it fairly, because there is no single political party, candidate or philosophy that can adequately represent the diverse political interests within a single district.

You will likely hear much talk tonight and at the upcoming hearings about "communities of interest" in different geographic areas. Before the committee accepts any generalizations, I urge you to take a drive down any street in any community having elections this fall, and link that to members of past state and federal elections as well. You quickly learn, from the reliable political barometers known as lawn signs, that neighbors, let alone whole towns or communities, do not necessarily have a shared political philosophy.

No matter how you end up drawing the district lines, you are consigning some large number of voters, up to 49% in a two person race, and even more in a multi-candidate race, to have their political interests lost in the election of a single "representative." You should not find comfort in the old standby, "Well, that's democracy." No, that is not democracy, at least as it is practiced in almost every other democratic nation in the world today. Not only is that disenfranchising to individual voters, this phenomenon has the potential to distort the overall representation in the legislature as much as any purposeful gerrymandering.

The assumption that a shared geographic interest is the only important political interest is an insult to the voters of this Commonwealth. I suggest that you consider for future use a political system in which the voters define their shared interests, not by where they happen to live, but by how they vote.

You will find that not only will the two existing parties end up with a number of seats reasonably related to the voting support they attract, but that other parties, other political perspectives, may make it onto the scene as well. From what I hear and read, there are a lot of people out there looking for just such alternatives. The problem is, they know that if their preferred candidate doesn't win the most votes of all, they have wasted their vote and forsaken the chance for political representation.

The alternative, of course, is an electoral system based on the principles of proportional representation, or PR as it is known. There are many different ways to incorporate these principles, and I don't intend to cover in any detail these options tonight.

I believe that this committee should instead call for a specific commission to explore these different methods, with the idea of finding the best way to get ourselves out of this futile but ever-recurring districting morass. Each of the PR options in use today have different aspects that speak to major concerns people might have, whether it be the relationship of individual candidates to parties, or maintaining the strongest possible geographical association within the context of fair representation.

It is fitting that you have begun your hearings here in Worcester, which is privileged to have used the preference voting form of PR to elect its city government, 1949-1959. Preference voting was abandoned mostly because it took a long time to count the ballots. That would be rectified by computers were preference voting employed today.

I say privileged because never was this city's government more diverse and representative of all the people. Without a single district line being drawn, the various neighborhoods were better represented then they are presently, even with half the council now made up of district representatives. Without court decisions, race-based districting, or notions of "influence" in some places but not in others, the city government was wonderfully inclusive of the various ethnic minority groups, at a time when polarized voting was not exactly unknown.

I urge you to take a drive down any street... You quickly learn, from the reliable political barometers known as lawn signs, that neighbors, let alone whole towns or communities, do not necessarily have a shared political philosophy.

Race will certainly enter into your deliberations as you consider the Central Massachusetts districts; specifically, those in the city of Worcester. It must, due to the Voting Rights Act. But the law leads you to some very tough questions:

I personally believe that the Voting Rights Act has been an enormous leap forward, and do not fault its intent. My point is that your committee could choose to meet its obligations under the law in a far more accommodating way, which dovetails with protecting the interests of all other voters as well.

You have two overall problems related to this city. One is how to subdivide the city itself; the other is which suburban towns to pull into the mix to balance off the numbers, since Worcester's population lands halfway between four districts and five.

You can take hours of testimony about all the reasons to draw lines one way or the other, and then deliberate for hours more, and you still can't fix the fact that a very large number of people, in both the city and the suburbs, will not be represented by someone of their choosing in the state legislature.

If we had a different system, such as a five member district with proportional voting, the issue would be resolved in the time it takes to punch a few numbers on the calculator. The 169,759 people of Worcester would form the core of the district that would elect five representatives. Reviewing the population numbers from adjacent towns shows that combining Leicester and West Boylston in this district reaches a population of 186,561, or a mere 0.8% deviation below average.

Are we to pity these two towns for being swallowed up into the big Worcester monster just because their population numbers work out right, perhaps like some in Leicester already feel about their current inclusion in a "Worcester district"? Not at all, as long as proportional voting is being used, in which 20% of the voters can elect one representative, and a majority can elect at least three.

Just as every Worcester voter would have a fair chance to join with enough other voters to elect one representative, no matter where they live, so would the voters of these two towns. One fifth of voters elect one representative, throughout the entire district. Under a PR system, the voters in these two towns would have a greater chance of electing a representative of their choice than if they were in a strictly suburban single member district.

It's all so much simpler. Besides, no one, within the city or outside, could accuse you of manipulating the lines towards some preconceived goal of representation. After you have completed the difficult process you are embarking on tonight, I urge you to create a Commission on Voting System Reform so that your successors ten years from now won't have to go through what you will certainly have to endure right now.

Howard Fain is president of the Fair Ballot Alliance of Massachusetts (FBAM). A recent FBAM study found that in 1994 (Massachusetts' first state legislative elections since the 1993 redistricting), 52% of seats were uncontested. Only 19% of seats were won by less than 20%, and voter turnout was down 2.7% from the last off-presidential year election in 1990.


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