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Groups seek greater minority clout

Target legislative redistricting panel

By Akilah Johnson
Globe Staff / September 13, 2011

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As the redistricting process comes to a close, voting rights advocates are ramping up to ensure that their message is heard.

That message: New state legislative and congressional districts must increase voting power of minority groups to reflect the state’s growing diversity.

Massachusetts has a troubled history on the issue. Ten years ago, state lawmakers authorized a redistricting plan that illegally diluted the voting power of minorities by doing such things as packing them into one district. In 2004, a panel of three federal judges struck down that plan, saying lawmakers “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.’’

This time around, the process will be even more charged, as the state is being forced to reduce the number of congressional districts from 10 to nine based on census data.

At least one group is taking an aggressive approach to help ensure that the plan adopted by the state helps increase the odds of minorities winning seats in the Legislature and Congress.

The Massachusetts Black Empowerment Coalition, which has threatened to sue the state if lawmakers do not go along with its plan, recently asked the US Justice Department to oversee actions by the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee.

The Justice Department said in August that it would “carefully consider’’ the request.

Now the coalition has sent a letter to Governor Deval Patrick asking him to “veto any redistricting legislation that does not reflect political equity for minority groups.’’

Because of the governor’s extensive history of civil rights work, first as a lawyer with the NAACP and then with the Justice Department, Patrick is “all too cognizant of the sovereignty of the vote, especially as it pertains to historically disenfranchised groups,’’ coalition cochairman Kevin Peterson said in the letter, which was sent late last week.

“The maps that we presented are game changers,’’ Peterson said Friday.

He said his group’s plan promises to double the number of minority-majority state legislative districts from 10 to 20 and create an incumbent-free congressional district.

“If something similar isn’t incorporated in the final redistricting plan, then I think the black community has no choice but to go back to the courts to seek relief,’’ he said, adding that there are few other ways to “achieve the sort of equity that we are looking for.’’

The governor’s press secretary, Alex Goldstein, said the office is reviewing the letter and appreciates the concerns it raised.

“We look forward to reviewing a final proposal from the Legislature that is fair and equitable for all Massachusetts residents,’’ Goldstein said.

Despite the best efforts of the Redistricting Committee to create equitable maps, a lawsuit is inevitable, said Michael J. Moran, House chairman of the committee. There are too many groups with differing interests, he said.

“There’s really no way you can avoid being sued,’’ Moran said by phone. “If you do one map, then this group is upset. And if you do this map, then that group is upset. And, honestly, that’s part of the process. They have every right to appeal this to a court to see if the actual end result is in any way disenfranchising a community of color.’’

Moran said the committee is analyzing every map submitted by an outside organization. If those maps include elements that adhere to the committee’s guiding principals of fairness, he said, they will be included in the final plan.

Paramount, he said, is the need to ensure that districts are not packed or cracked, a phenomenon “where you would take a minority population and pack it into one district where there would be enough [to] put in two, or take one . . . and split it into two districts.’’

Apart from Peterson’s group, other groups are taking a more conciliatory approach. This year’s Redistricting Committee has been more transparent than most, they say, and they are working with lawmakers for as long as they can. They are also trying to educate the public, letting people know that the process is not over.

Any civic organization “has the responsibility to make sure that its constituency is well informed, particularly with the redistricting because of the implications,’’ said Rahsaan D. Hall, a lawyer who represents a group known as the Drawing Democracy Coalition.

“We plan on taking them [lawmakers] at their word that they are looking at creating a majority-minority districts,’’ said Sean Daughtry, political action chairman for the Boston branch of the NAACP. But, he said,“we plan to hold them accountable.’’

Daughtry said there are other avenues of recourse, such as calling for a period of public review and response, to resolve an issue, if one is identified, before a lawsuit is filed or the Justice Department must intervene.

“I would not use the term lawsuit just yet,’’ he said. “That’s something you don’t broach until necessary.’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at ajohnson@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson2.