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Globe Editorial

Lost House seat increases need for clean redistricting process

December 23, 2010

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THE CENSUS Bureau dealt a blow to the Massachusetts congressional delegation this week, confirming that, due to the state’s relatively low population growth, it will lose a seat in the House of Representatives. The news has already sparked heated discussions about which member will lose his or her job in the coming realignment, and who could benefit from favorably redrawn districts. All this drama has put a new spotlight on the fairness of the redistricting process, and prompted well-founded worries that a desire to help one or another of the incumbents could lead to illogically drawn districts.

Under state law, the Legislature has authority over redrawing both the House districts and legislators’s own seats. But with all the political tension surrounding the loss of a congressional seat, State House lawmakers shouldn’t pretend that they can draw boundaries in an objective, nonpolitical manner.

Secretary of State William Galvin has a better idea: Put together a bipartisan panel that includes demographic experts, and tell it to draw up a few possible maps for legislative and congressional districts. Its recommendations would not be binding, and the Legislature would retain final authority. But if lawmakers settled on a map radically different from what the independent panel proposed, they’d at least have to explain themselves. This makes good sense, and the state Republican Party has already endorsed the idea.

Unfortunately, legislative leaders aren’t open to it. Senate President Therese Murray, for instance, maintains that it’s “a little too late’’ to do what Galvin proposes, and says lawmakers have already set up a redistricting committee. But the legislative committee can’t have accomplished much yet; new maps require highly detailed population counts, which the Census Bureau won’t finish delivering until March. There’s ample time, and ample reason, to take a more deliberate approach. The Massachusetts Legislature has a long and troubled history with redistricting. The term “gerrymandering’’ was born here in 1812, when lawmakers sought to help the party of then-governor Elbridge Gerry by drawing an odd, salamander-shaped district. More recently, former House Speaker Tom Finneran pleaded guilty on a felony charge after lying about his role in the 2002 redistricting. By involving outside experts, leaders of the current Legislature can protect themselves from accusations of skullduggery.

Especially after the bruising revelations about political patronage in the Probation Department, the Legislature would gain significant credibility if it sought to depoliticize the redistricting process rather than engage in as much intrigue as the law allows.

In the meantime, members of the House delegation should take a deep breath and refrain from claims that their districts are uniquely important and must not be broken up. If the Legislature can see its way to accepting Galvin’s proposal, what could be a complicated, fraught process would suddenly be simpler and more dignified. Yes, it’s possible to redraw political districts in a responsible manner — if those involved, and those affected, behave like professionals rather than pols.