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Galvin calls for changes to district redrawing

By Michael Levenson and Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / December 5, 2010

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Secretary of State William F. Galvin is calling on legislative leaders to remove partisanship and back-room dealing from the redistricting process by appointing a special commission to help redraw Massachusetts’ congressional districts for the 2012 election.

Under the state constitution, the Legislature redraws the districts every 10 years based on the latest US Census figures, a highly charged and secretive process that has led to lawsuits and shenanigans and could become explosive this year if the state loses one of its 10 US House seats.

Galvin is proposing that the Legislature invite more public input and scrutiny by handing some of the decision-making to an independent panel that includes Democrats and Republicans, residents from across the state, and specialists in demographics. Such a panel, he said, would propose a handful of maps of potential districts to help frame the public debate, although its plans would not be binding.

More and more states are adopting independent redistricting commissions in an effort to depoliticize the process.

Galvin said he recognizes the constitution gives state lawmak ers the ultimate power to redraw the boundaries.

“I am not trying to weaken their authority,’’ he said in an interview. “I am only trying to help them define their options.’’

But there is no indication that state lawmakers will embrace Galvin’s proposal and willingly loosen their grip on such a politically powerful task. Indeed, Senate President Therese Murray poured cold water on the idea of an independent commission last week, noting that she and House Speaker Robert A. DeLeo have already launched the process by appointing chairmen to a joint redistricting committee and by hiring a specialist in political mapmaking.

Asked if she would be open to an independent commission, Murray said: “No. We’ve already set up our own committee last year. It would be a little late to do that.’’

Seth Gitell, a DeLeo spokesman, declined to comment.

Galvin pointed to the state’s current congressional map, with its bizarrely contorted boundaries, as evidence that there is considerable room for improvement. Representative William D. Delahunt’s district, he noted, runs from Quincy to Nantucket, and Representative Barney Frank’s district stretches from Brookline to New Bedford.

This year, Galvin said, there is a 50 percent chance that the state will lose one congressional seat before the next election; the census plans to finalize its population figures this month, which will determine the allocation of congressional seats nationwide.

Galvin said he is hoping to avoid costly redistricting lawsuits and electoral confusion. Massachusetts, after all, is the state that gave birth to the term gerrymandering and has a long history of drawing districts based on politics.

In 2004, a panel of three federal judges found that the Legislature had discriminated against minority voters by drawing state legislative districts that favored white incumbents. That case led to former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran’s conviction on federal obstruction of justice charges.

“Any fair and objective look at the past process can only conclude that the proceedings have been shrouded in secrecy and, in some instances, have had elements of political mischief,’’ said Galvin, a Democrat and the state’s chief elections officer. “This would create templates for an intelligent public discussion of what these districts would look like.’’

Pamela H. Wilmot, the executive director of the Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, said Galvin’s plan is a “good start.’’

“Redistricting shouldn’t be about helping any individual, incumbent, or challenger,’’ Wilmot said. “It should be about best representing the communities of Massachusetts.’’

Common Cause has pushed, without success, to change the state constitution to take redistricting decisions out of the hands of lawmakers.

Wilmot said one of the key goals in changing the redistricting process is to give the public a role in drawing the lines for congressional and legislative seats. Twenty-one states have set up commissions to redraw districts or advise lawmakers on the process, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“In other states where independent commissions make the decisions, there is a better track record for fair districts, without bald political interference,’’ Wilmot said.

A more radical version of Galvin’s plan was floated this summer by state Treasurer Timothy P. Cahill, who was running for governor as an independent. Under Cahill’s plan, the state Supreme Judicial Court, rather than the Democratic leaders of the House and Senate, would appoint a committee to redraw legislative districts.

“It’s time to put the partisan politics aside and restore the people’s choice to this process,’’ Cahill said at the time, when he was hoping to capitalize on voter frustration with the two-party system.

Michael Levenson can be reached at mlevenson@globe.com. Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.