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A promising redistricting map, with politics kept to a minimum

October 20, 2011

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IT WAS only right that when the Legislature’s redistricting committee proposed new state House and Senate districts Tuesday, it also set aside the next two weeks to receive public comments and consider amendments. The approach was a stark departure from the last time the Legislature rewrote district lines. In 2001, then-House Speaker Tom Finneran unveiled his redistricting plan on a Thursday and pushed it to a floor vote the following Monday. That was an indication lawmakers weren’t really interested in public input, and it foreshadowed a long legal fight that, after a few ugly turns, led to Finneran’s prosecution on obstruction-of-justice charges.

The current redistricting looks like a far more responsible effort. Because of advances in technology, and because committee members were open to suggestion, advocacy groups had the opportunity to draw up their own maps in recent months.

Perhaps as a result, the new boundaries reflect a fair attempt to balance most of the concerns that should go into redistricting. The new maps minimize the population variance between districts; reduce the number of municipalities that are split across legislative districts; and double the number of House districts where members of ethnic minorities form a majority of residents.

In doing so, the plan is likely to raise the number of black and Latino lawmakers, and should stand up to scrutiny under voting-rights litigation. Furthermore, by increasing the concentration of Democratic-leaning black and Latino voters in certain districts, the new maps may even create greater opportunities for Republican candidates in other areas.

To be sure, the maps released this week by the legislative committee are hardly blind to incumbency - as the maps that an independent redistricting drawn from scratch would be. But that idea never had a chance on Beacon Hill. Lawmakers like to think the electorate values “continuity of service’’ as much as they do, and it’s a little surprising that a decade of population shifts and demographic changes would yield only two open House districts.

Even so, in the less than ideal world of redistricting by elected politicians, the new maps appear remarkably unscarred by ulterior motives and hidden agendas. At a time of great cynicism about behind-the-scenes machinations on Beacon Hill, the committee chairmen who oversaw the process, Stanley Rosenberg and Michael Moran, have done the Legislature a service by handling a sensitive issue in a straightforward way.