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My Turn: Drawing the people's map

In his “My Turn” column on Feb. 14, Isaac Maas encourages me, as Senate Majority Leader, dean of the Senate and Senate chairman of the 2000 and 2010 state redistricting special committees, to promote the idea that outside, independent redistricting panels produce better outcomes than those headed by legislators.

It’s a good talking point, but one that not only seems blind to the subtleties of redistricting, but also is not supported by facts.

When the members of the Massachusetts Legislature chose to have the 2010 redistricting performed by a legislative committee, instead of a so-called independent commission, we opted to keep it in the hands of people who are held accountable by the political process every two years. If voters were dissatisfied with our results, it would show at the polls, a powerful incentive to do our job well. An independent commission, however, whose members would have been appointed by elected officials, would not have negated the political nature of redistricting, merely removed from voters the power to express directly any displeasure with an unsatisfactory result.
Independent does not necessarily mean freedom from partiality, or freedom from political influence. Nor does an independent commission necessarily mean a better map.

For example, according to information provided by the National Conference of State Legislatures, of the 13 independent commissions in 2000 that were responsible for drawing the initial map for their states, nine, or 69 percent, were challenged in court. During the latest redistricting cycle in 2010, independent commissions fared worse than the previous decade. Of the states that used independent commissions, 12, or 85 percent, were challenged in court.

Legislative committees, on the other hand, fared better during both cycles. Of the 37 state legislative committees, 19, or 51 percent, were challenged in court, and in 2010, challenges were made against 66 percent of these states.

It’s important to note that the plan crafted by the Massachusetts Senate in 2000, when I also served as committee chairman, was not challenged in court. In fact, documents submitted to the Massachusetts Federal District Court held up the Senate’s process as an example of how to reach out effectively to the public and incorporate disparate voices.

I believe the facts indicate that the 2010 plan received a similarly positive reception.

As Senate chair of the 2010 redistricting committee, my colleagues and I were determined to have the most open, most transparent, most publicly accessible process in the commonwealth’s history.

Toward that end, we held an unprecedented 13 public hearings across the state, three in western Massachusetts, heard 31 hours of testimony from more than 400 groups and individuals and utilized a website, which received more than 45,000 hits, to facilitate public participation.

Was it the most open, transparent redistricting process in the state’s history? A lot of disparate people and organizations think it was, praising both the process and the outcome.

For example, The Boston Herald, in a Nov. 9, 2011, news article by Chris Cassidy, said: “Astonished Bay State Republicans say they’ve emerged from the latest redistricting process with a better chance of breaking the Democrats’ iron grip on the commonwealth’s congressional delegation in 2012 — instead of being gerrymandered deeper into exile.”

Even political pundits of all stripes also praised the process and the final map, signed by Gov. Patrick on Nov. 21, 2011.

Nate Little, executive director of the Massachusetts Republican Party, said: “ ... Republicans are enthusiastic about the new lines. It’s obvious that more districts are competitive.”

And Mark G. Evans, a freelance writer and former professor at the University of Toronto, had this to say in a Dec. 1, 2011, column published in the MetroWest Daily News: “This year, with Massachusetts having lost a congressional seat, it was impossible to create districts that were substantially similar to those designed a decade ago. In the process, legislators and common people alike had the chance to argue for their preferred district boundaries. This year the committee did a good job of meeting the formal criteria ... Gerrymandering is dead in Massachusetts.”

And referring to both the congressional map and the state legislative maps, Yvonne Abraham, in a Dec. 1, 2011, Boston Globe column, said: “The committee led by Rep. Michael Moran, of Boston, and Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst, put forth a gutsy plan. It reunited some towns that had been divided, upped the number of majority-minority legislative districts, and gave more clout to the southeastern part of the state. It’s a map even a Republican could love.”

And finally, in March of 2012, an organization called State Integrity Investigation released a report on corruption in state governments across the nation and Massachusetts ranked 10th nationally in overall efforts to combat corruption.

Obviously, we have work to do. But that same organization gave our 2010 redistricting process an “A” grade for openness and transparency, the highest score Massachusetts earned in any of the survey items, and the highest redistricting score among the 50 states.

Redistricting is a complicated process and as long as human beings are in charge, whether as members of a legislative committee or an outside commission, it will be an imperfect process. A flawless result cannot be guaranteed by anyone. But what is guaranteed is that an outside commission would remove from the process the countervailing force of direct voter scrutiny, something my colleagues and I, as elected public servants, understand very well and feel every day.
Direct accountability and direct access: This is what my colleagues and I on the Legislature’s Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, both in 2000 and 2010, worked to achieve. My position on this is unequivocal, and unlikely to change. I believe that any redistricting map should be considered the people’s map, and, therefore, should be drawn by those most accountable to the people.

State Sen. Stan Rosenberg, D-Amherst, is the Majority Leader of the Massachusetts Senate.

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