By Kevin Peterson
The proposed legislative map recently issued by the state’s redistricting committee reflects an audacious commitment for racial and electoral equity in Massachusetts. With some modifications, it should be adopted and signed into law by Governor Patrick.
Past redistricting rounds, however, have not served the minority community or the Commonwealth well, producing unfair advantages for incumbents, the wealthy and white communities. Black and Latino voters have had to sue the state after each of the last three redistricting processes, claiming voter discrimination. Federal courts agreed with them each time. Presently our body politic is an ugly specimen: minorities make up 20 percent of the general population, but are only 5 percent of elected officials on Beacon Hill.
This round of redistricting is proving to be different with preemptive public pressure and a commitment from the Legislature to heed the concerns of minority citizens. While the Massachusetts Joint Committee for Redistricting has presented a new statewide map that supports minority gains, it must go even further to ensure that its black citizens are given every opportunity to be counted in the State House. This means the creation of a state Senate seat for black voters in Boston.
The potential results of a fair redistricting process are manifold. Consider the following:
An Enhanced Majority Minority Congressional District: The creation of a new congressional district that maximizes minority interests is the appropriate thing to do and advisable under existing case law and federal statue, including the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Currently huge swaths of black and Latino voting influence is divided among the 7th and the 8th congressional districts, unfairly diluting their political capacity. By uniting these communities of interest, and creating an incumbent free congressional district, we commit ourselves to ensuring the equal protection of voting rights for minorities across the commonwealth.
Racial Proportionality Within the State Legislature: Currently no African-American serves in the State Senate. There is only one Latino among the 40 senators statewide. And just two Asians serve in the House of Representatives. This low level of representation on Beacon Hill does not reflect the true political presence of these minority groups within the state. Proportional representation would increase minority state senators by three and would raise the potential numbers of state representatives by 7 members.
End Prison-based Gerrymandering: As things now stand, incarcerated individuals are counted as residents of the prison where they are imprisoned rather than their home addresses to which they will return. This falsely inflates political districts where non-voting prisoners are housed, thereby giving residents of those communities unfair voting population advantages over other political districts. In other words, political districts where prisoners can’t vote but are counted as residents possess disproportionate voting strength over other districts. Second, because blacks and Latinos are overly represented in state prison populations, their home communities suffer the loss of their presence during the redistricting process.
Much needs to be debated during the current redistricting process. But because blacks, Latino and Asians have often been at the losing end of redistricting. The Legislature would do well to make the Commonwealth a stronger democratic community based upon proportional electoral representation and the purposeful protection of minority voting rights.
Kevin C. Peterson, in residence at the College for Community and Public Service at the University of Massachusetts at Boston, is the executive director of The New Democracy Coalition and is co-chair of the Mass Black Empowerment Coalition for Redistricting.