Mapping the way to a better system

By Boston Herald
Published October 5th 2005 in Boston Herald
Gerrymandering has long been a political fact of life. Massachusetts politicians may not have invented the practice of rigging district maps to protect incumbents, but it got its name here.

And if you think there is too little competition in the Bay State, look just about anywhere else. According to the Center for Voting & Democracy, the last two elections were the least competitive in U.S. history. In 2004, the average margin of victory in the House was a whopping 40 percent.

Several states, including Florida, Ohio and California, are pushing hard to reform the redistricting process that allows incumbents to keep a vise-like grip on their seats. It's an idea worth exploring in Massachusetts, too.

Every 10 years, states are required to redraw legislative and congressional district lines to reflect new population data. In most states like Massachusetts, lawmakers are the ones drawing the maps. Convenient, no?

But all you have to do is take a look at a map of U.S. Rep. Barney Frank's district to realize that lawmakers aren't exactly relying on natural boundaries when they come up with these plans.

Former Chelmsford rep Carol Cleven was forced to retire when her House district was eliminated by the Democrat-dominated Legislature in 2001. Guess which party she represented.

And remember folks, at the heart of the lawsuit that tripped up former House Speaker Thomas Finneran was a claim that the Legislature used its redistricting power to protect incumbents. A court said that's exactly what happened.

Voters' rights groups have drawn up a plan that would give the power to redraw legislative maps to an independent commission. The seven-member panel would include legal and government experts but no elected officials, and meetings would be open to the public instead of conducted in secrecy atthe State House. Imagine that.

The push is on to qualify for the 2008 ballot, and talk about your strange bedfellows. The state GOP has signed on along with liberal groups like MassVote and Common Cause. Seems the only ones not on board are legislative leaders. Imagine that.

Naturally, the out-of-power GOP is hoping to spark competition in at least a few races. But as long as the Democrats have exclusive access to the redistricting software, that's impossible. It's time to consider a change.