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"Olympics" give residents a say for pay in Massachusetts redistricting process

By Patrick Donges


Pittsfield, MA – The Massachusetts chapter of Common Cause, a non-partisan good government group with chapters across the country including in New York, Connecticut, and Vermont, is facilitating the first Massachusetts "Redistricting Olympics."

Massachusetts is slated to lose one representative in Congress this year as state legislators re-form district lines for both state seats and congressional districts based on 2010 U.S. Census figures.

The Common Cause contest challenges residents to formulate their own district maps using free software available on the group's website. Patrick Frank is Massachusetts field director for Common Cause.

"One of the inspirations that we had for it was a contest that they did earlier in the year in Virginia; it seemed to really stimulate a public conversation about sort of the intricacy and the difficulty of putting together these maps as well as some of the competing interests."

"It's sort of unprecedented to this cycle, and I think that that's because of the wealth of new technology available. The software we use, which is Dave Bradlee's redistricting software, is available for free on the web and is actually a very effective tool for building redistricting maps. These sort of things weren't around ten years ago."

"We know that people have a lot of opinions around redistricting and it's generally a very closed door sort of process."

Along with the Virginia contest, done with teams from the state's public higher education system and wrapped up in March, a similar contest also began this week in Ohio through a coalition of which Common Cause's Midwest chapters are members.

In Massachusetts, residents will get a chance to create maps in three categories; Massachusetts House of Representatives, Massachusetts Senate, and U.S. Congress.
The winners in each category will have their maps submitted to the state's Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, who are charged with producing a map to be submitted for approval by the full House and Senate.

The top three winners in each category will also receive money for their maps, with the top prize set at $750 for the state House district winner. The top prizes for state Senate and Congressional lines are both $500; Frank said that while the prizes will likely be viewed as an added perk for those already invested in the redistricting process, they may spur interest from residents who haven't given thought to the process before now.

"The software itself is fairly easy to use, so it's definitely something that a casual user can do, but it's also something that somebody with a little bit more knowledge around local politics and a very detailed interest say in the State House could do."

"It's actually not as difficult as you would think to actually build the maps; now the issues around it can get quite complex."

Those issues are perhaps no more complex than in the Western half of the state, which has been cited as prime location for consolidation of Congressional districts, potentially pitting long-time incumbent first and second district representatives John Olver and Richard Neal against each other in a Democratic primary.

Here Olver speaks to the redistricting committee at a June 11 hearing in Pittsfield on the prospect of dividing the Berkshires, which has also been cited as a possibility.

"I urge you to reject any plan that might come before you, that would split Berkshire County in any way whatsoever."

One group, FairDistrictsMass.org, already has created two maps that would consolidate the two districts, a move the group's CEO has said is "unavoidable" given the number of residents who left the region according to census data.

Frank said the response to the contest has been "incredible" thus far, with several maps having already been submitted, but that the issue of keeping one or two Congressional seats in the west is still a hot topic.

"There doesn't seem to be any consistency, especially on that point. And what I think is happing, based on the maps we've seen, is that people are realizing that it's not easy anyway you try and put it together."

"We have heard from people in the western part of the state that really want to keep two, and we have gotten some maps from people from the eastern part of the state that try and turn it into one. We at Common Cause aren't really taking an opinion on that, we just want to make sure that everybody's voice is heard."

State Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, senate co-chair of the redistricting committee, said she was "thrilled" to learn about the contest, adding "the more maps, the better."

"Throughout the course of the 13 public hearings that the committee has held it has been our constant refrain; please submit maps, please submit maps. Give us specific suggestions.'"

"It's really wonderful to see Common Cause put out a tool like this that both makes it technologically available to people but also provides the encouragement and incentive of a contest. It's just totally fantastic.

Like those in the contest, Chang-Diaz said the committee has yet to come to a consensus on the western Congressional districts, saying it is still early in the process.