During the heat of the federal shutdown, the Globe’s editorial writers recently suggested that a non-partisan redistricting commission, here in Massachusetts, could help end the hyper-partisanship gripping Washington.
To see if that’s true, it helps to understand what’s caused the problem of rampant partisanship in the first place. Quint hint: Massachusetts district lines were not a major cause.
Technology is one cause. We all know about the splintering of media into increasingly partisan papers, television channels, and blogs. But there’s more to it. Easy air travel, introduced over the past few decades, means Members of Congress come home three or more days a week. In the 40’s, 50’s and 60s, a time of relative comity between the two parties, Members used to stay in Washington for months at time, working, living, and building relationships with fellow politicians, including those across the aisle.
The broken campaign finance system is a bigger cause. First, the McCain-Finegold law ended unlimited donations to parties. Then, the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision allowed unlimited donations to outside groups. I supported McCain-Finegold strongly, but, taken together, we must all admit, for good or ill, that as a result of the two decisions, official party groups like the Republican National Committee have become shells of what they once were, while MoveOn, Credo, Freedom Works, Heritage Action and the Club for Growth are increasingly powerful. Just last year, South Carolina conservative Jim DeMint left the US Senate to become head of the Heritage Foundation, seeking more power to drive the agenda. That should tell you something.
The broken campaign finance system also means Members of Congress are on the phone raising dough for hours each week. The passionate donors they call rarely advocate bipartisanship.
Geography is also a factor. Over the past decades, Democrats and Republicans have increasing self-sorted geographically. Even with perfect districts, Democrats live with Democrats, and Republicans live with Republicans, so partisan districts are likely.
Beyond technology, campaign money, and geography, both parties aren’t equally to blame for hyper-partisanship. Thanks to Barry Goldwater, President Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the evangelical right, the Koch brothers, and the Tea Party, the Republican Party has been transformed. While both parties have moved since 1970, Democrats have become only slightly more liberal, while Republicans have become dramatically more conservative.
Last comes redistricting itself. Districts that look like Rorschach tests have plagued our nation since Massachusetts pols created the first gerrymander in 1812. New mapping software and comprehensive voter databases put the whole process on steroids. Redistricting is part of the problem.
Still, it’s not obvious that changing who is in charge will guarantee better results. Some states use nonpartisan commissions, other states use partisan commissions, and some states have their legislatures draw new districts. Plenty of maps created by commissions have ended up overturned in court for voting rights violations. It’s not clear that one system is always better than the others.
Massachusetts has experienced some of the worse – and best – of redistricting. In 2001, a closed-door process led to a federal court case and the political self-immolation of then-House Speaker Thomas Finneran. Ten years later, State Senator Stan Rosenberg and State Representative Mike Moran led an open, engaging, bipartisan process than involved over a dozen public meetings across Massachusetts, ample time for citizens to analyze and respond to proposed new maps, and thousands of comments from the public. Both the process and its results were acclaimed by the Globe’s editorial board and along with pundits and activists across the state.
The state’s new maps were never challenged in court – unlike the maps created in 42 other states. No other large state can make that claim. The few politicians who complained that their voices were not heard in the process were those who never encouraged their supporters to attend or speak up at public meetings, and who seemed to have thought a phone call or two to a top legislative leader would be sufficient to protect their district, as in the bad old days. No dice.
Now, the Globe suggests the state legislature pass a new law, giving its power to draw district lines to a nonpartisan commission. Where is the accountability there? Legislative mapmakers, unlike commissions, are directly accountable to the public.
Here’s a better plan: the legislature should formally codify, into state law (or better, into the state constitution) goals and procedures for redistricting, so that future mapmakers are required to follow the example set by the legislature in 2011.
The goals should include keeping districts compact, keeping municipalities together, and giving distinct communities — especially African American, Latino, and Asian American neighborhoods — a fair amount of political clout. The procedures should include an open public process, with plenty of time for input. And, unlike the process of 2011 (no process is perfect), the mapmakers should start with a blank canvass of raw census data, instead of waiting for cities and towns to draw precincts.
By codifying these requirements, Massachusetts citizens will be well protected in future processes. If other states would do the same, there would be a little less rancor in Washington – but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking redistricting reform alone is a silver bullet that will transform the wild far right back into the Republicans of the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.
Disclosure: I was director of MassVOTE during the previous redistricting process and am a member of the Massachusetts Local Election District Review Commission. These days, I serve as Director of Civic Outreach and Development for the Scholars Strategy Network. These views are my own.