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2013 Law & Public Policy, Commentaries

Redistricting Boston: The need for a better approach

Glissman_smBy Daniel Glissman.  Download as PDF.  The object of electoral redistricting is to create a plan for districts that provides fair representation for all Boston residents.  The process of redistricting should also be open and inclusive. The City of Boston fell short on the latter score in its most recent redistricting plan, completed in October 2012.  The process was unnecessarily slow, complicated, and contentious. There is a better way to approach this task. Other major cities, such as San Diego, have an approach that is significantly more inclusive and more efficient.

Redistricting is the process of redrawing the electoral districts that represent any town or city. State and federal constitutional provisions govern the process.  Federal requirements dictate when the process must occur, along with some basic procedural guidelines and standards, while states and municipalities are left to fine tune the process. The main purpose is to account for population shifts according to figures from the most recent decennial census that is, to create a plan that represents the city and its ethnic and cultural layout.

Redistricting is fundamental to the operation of the democratic system.  It can influence how a neighborhood or community feels about the quality of its representation, or its “voice” in the legislative process for the city or town.  It also has a direct effect on the residents via the decisions their elected representatives make on important issues like funding for schools and public projects. For these reasons it is essential that the public have access to the decision making process for redistricting.

Redistricting is also a sensitive subject. A redistricting plan (if challenged) will be scrutinized, as required by the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, by looking at the racial breakdowns of the communities that comprise the various districts being adjusted.  Because redistricting involves these difficult questions about fairness, it’s important that the process be as open as possible.

Currently the Boston City Council is tasked with formulating the new plans every ten years. The council must redraw the lines and pass a plan by a majority vote. Once passed by the council the plan must be approved by the Mayor before it becomes law.

Allowing a legislative body to control the process is troublesome for two reasons. First, the process is focused on the wrong people; it should be geared towards public participation. The legislators are not the ones who should make the final decision because they have too much of a personal stake in the plan. The way they draw up a plan or vote on a plan can effectively protect their future career and/or hinder an opponent’s.

Second, the process is not transparent enough. The fact that the plan’s outcome has a direct impact on the legislators gives rise to acrimonious debates, last minute deals, and horse-trading behind closed doors. Similarly, if the legislators fail to come to an agreement within the prescribed time frame the credibility of that group will greatly suffer.  The court may have to step in to draw a redistricting plan that neither the councillors nor their constituents will like.

The approach taken by cities such as San Diego is designed to alleviate some of these concerns. This approach is more technocratic it involves a redistricting commission comprised of seven members of the community. These members must be nominated by individuals or organizations.  The nominations are than reviewed by a judge, who makes appointments to the commission.

San Diego’s model is better for two reasons. First, it includes the right people in the process.  For example, a prerequisite for appointment to the redistricting commission is a declaration by the applicant that he or she will not be running for any San Diego City Office. This assures that the final plan is more than just a continuance of the status quo and protective of the current incumbents.  At the same time, the nomination requirement ensures that the public will be involved and aware of the process from its inception. And judicial review of applications means that the commission will be staffed with competent individuals interested in creating a map that fairly represents the city.

Second, the process bolsters the public’s confidence because it is transparent and involves a large amount of public comment. The commission is required to hold at least four public meetings prior to the preparation of a preliminary plan. The commission is required to present a preliminary plan and allow a thirty-day comment period after such filing in tandem with three public hearings before any plan may be adopted, and all materials must be made available to the public.

Boston is a perfect city for a redistricting commission like San Diego’s. With its vibrant academic, business, and non-profit communities, there would be little difficulty filling a commission of this sort with the best and brightest people to complete the job. If the task of redistricting is taken off of the shoulders of the Council members and the Mayor, both offices will be able to focus all of their energy on running the city and servicing its inhabitants to the best of their ability.

Daniel Glissman is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School, with an interest in real estate law and public service. He received his B.S. in Business Administration from Suffolk University in 2010. Prior to law school he worked in the real estate industry with a development firm and plans to start his legal career in the real estate field upon graduation.

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