BOSTON — The Massachusetts House easily defeated a Republican-backed proposal to create an independent commission to redraw the state’s congressional and legislative district lines.
The 121-31 vote last week came along party lines, with all of the GOP members in the heavily Democratic House backing the independent panel over a legislative committee that will decide the districts.
Proponents of an independent commission have argued that Massachusetts residents would have more confidence in a process that would appear free of any hint of political influence. Government watchdog groups have also called for an outside panel, as has Secretary of State William Galvin, a Democrat who is the state’s top elections official.
Massachusetts is losing one of its 10 seats in the U.S. House due to population shifts measured by the latest national census. All 10 of the state’s current House members are Democrats, meaning that redistricting could force two Democratic incumbents to face off in the next election if all seek re-election.
Critics of past congressional maps have pointed to irregularly shaped districts they say make little geographic sense.
Democratic leaders in the House said it was already too late in the process to set up an independent commission, but Republicans scoffed at that claim, saying they would have offered the proposal sooner had the leadership scheduled the debate earlier.
“There is a better way and there still exists a need to pursue that better way,” argued Rep. Bradley Jones, the House Minority Leader.
State Rep. Michael Moran, a Boston Democrat who has been tapped to lead the legislative redistricting effort in the House, said the process would be fair and open, beginning with a dozen public hearings around the state.
“Nothing is stopping anyone in this process, from any party or any part of the state, to potentially make suggestions, come to a hearing or give us advice on the maps they would like to see,” said Moran.
A website would be set up where residents can monitor the process and even submit testimony online, he said.
Jones acknowledged that the process envisioned by Moran was an improvement on previous ones, and that no system was perfect, but he maintained the independent panel would be the superior approach.
The state Senate also rejected an independent panel in a vote last month.
While the redrawing of congressional districts is certain to garner the most attention, lawmakers must also revisit district lines for the state House and Senate.
Redistricting has a long and sometimes controversial history in Massachusetts.
Elbridge Gerry, a governor in the early 1800s, forever had his name associated with “gerrymandering,” a term that was coined for the practice of manipulating districts to favor the party in power.
More recently, former House Speaker Thomas Finneran pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge after being accused of giving false testimony about his role in the creation of new legislative districts in 2000. Opponents had challenged the map in court, saying it discriminated against black and other minority voters in Boston.