Census begins fight on districts

Population shift only part of battle on redistricting

By Michael Levenson and Noah Bierman
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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US Representatives John W. Olver and William R. Keating represent districts whose populations grew at a slower rate over the last decade than any of their congressional colleagues from Massachusetts, setting the stage for a major fight on how the state will eliminate one of its 10 US House seats.

Census figures released yesterday show that US Representatives James McGovern and Niki Tsongas represent districts whose populations grew at a faster clip than others in the delegation.

Overall, population dropped in Western Massachusetts and on Cape Cod and grew in Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence, Plymouth, and Revere. But all 10 Congressional districts added population.

These shifts will influence, but not determine, how state lawmakers redraw congressional districts later this year.

For example, even though the Cape, currently represented by Keating, lost population, it is unlikely to lose a seat, because it is a geographically distinct area that is nearly impossible to carve up, said Stephen Ansolabehere, a Harvard professor of government.

Likewise, it is possible the two Western Massachusetts districts, represented by Olver and Richard E. Neal, could remain, even as the area loses population, because they are already drawn to include growing areas near Worcester, said Ansolabehere.

Secretary of State William F. Galvin said the Lowell area, currently represented by Tsongas, will also be hard to divide, because the Merrimack Valley shares common economic and cultural interests, one of the considerations for drawing districts. Each congressional district will need to include 727,514 residents.

In addition to population changes, lawmakers will have to take into account geographic boundaries, racial shifts, and other less obvious factors, such as common roads, watersheds, zip codes, school districts, and industries. The entire process will be further shaped by political horse-trading.

Yesterday’s numbers are “the gunshot that starts the race to draw districts,’’ said Nathaniel Persily, a Columbia University professor frequently called upon by courts to draw nonpartisan maps when districts are challenged. “Redistricting becomes a game of musical chairs, and when the music stops, one of the incumbents doesn’t have a seat.’’

The census figures are the building blocks for redistricting. Local officials will now use the figures to draw city and town precincts, and then state lawmakers will use the precincts to design state legislative and congressional districts in the fall.

“It’s a little like playing Tetris, where you’re just putting these blocks together,’’ Ansolabehere said.

The central challenge — eliminating one of the state’s congressional seats — has been known for months, and yesterday’s figures only intensified the anxiety gripping the state’s political class.

“I’m quite sure that every member of Congress is sitting with their calculator, adding up all the towns and figuring out what their population is and taking out their wish list of what they’d like, and their ‘dispose list’ of what they’d like to get rid of,’’ Galvin said.

The state lawmakers in charge of redistricting are pledging to include the public in the process through a series of hearings, although they have already held closed-door meetings with each member of the state’s congressional delegation.

Representative Michael J. Moran, a Brighton Democrat who is House chairman of the Redistricting Committee, said he was not surprised that population had dropped in the state’s west and on Cape Cod and grown in Boston and other cities.

He said he will need to consider those changes, but he would not predict how they will affect the final maps. “It’s going to be a very comprehensive and long process that we’re about to go through,’’ he said, “and it’s all going to go into the calculus.’’

Moran’s Senate counterpart, Stanley C. Rosenberg, an Amherst Democrat, also asserted that it is too early to draw conclusions from the census data. “We’re not going to be drawing any maps at all,’’ until the hearings are completed later this spring, he said.

State lawmakers across the country are also redrawing congressional districts, trying to add or subtract seats using any number of potential maps designed to affect racial, political, or geographic representation.

In some respects, the process here will be less contentious, given the overwhelming advantage Democrats have in voter registration and in the Legislature and Congress. In other states, the map could affect the balance of power between Republicans and Democrats within the US House of Representatives.

Here, Democrats are unlikely to create even a single congressional district that would favor a Republican.

In 2004, a panel of three federal judges found the Massachusetts House had violated federal law by drawing state legislative districts that diluted minority voting power.

“History tells us that the redistricting process in Massachusetts has been marked by fiasco, errors, and voting rights violations to the degree that voters are cynical about the process,’’ said Kevin C. Peterson, cochairman of the Mass Black Empowerment Coalition, a voting rights group. He called for “an open and transparent redistricting process.’’

Matt Carroll of the Globe staff contributed to this report. Levenson can be reached at; Bierman at

Correction: Because of a database reporting error, the original version of this story incorrectly reported the population shifts within the state's congressional districts, according to new US Census figures. No districts lost population. The districts represented by US Representatives James McGovern and Niki Tsongas gained the most. The districts represented by US Representatives William R. Keating and John W. Olver gained the least.