The Politicians Choose Their Voters

by David Trumbull

March 12, 2004

So, it’s John Forbes Kerry who’ll challenge President George W. Bush in November. So decreed the voters in several states, including in last week’s Massachusetts Presidential Preference Primary Election. Well, as they say, vox populi, vox dei, or, on the other hand, as Howard Dean said after the Iowa caucus, “The people have spoken –the bastards!” In any event, the people have spoken, and the Democrats among them have chosen their man; while we Republicans have chosen to stay the course with Mr. Bush.

It is universally acknowledged that to choose our officer-holders is the essence of representative democracy. That is, unless you live in Boston, where the incumbent Democrats in the Great and General Court have Gerrymandered the districts to assure their own re-election --and the probable exclusion of black, Latino, and other minority candidates. Not to mention Republicans, surely a minority as concerns the Massachusetts legislature.

Ah, the Gerrymander. It –or rather the name for it—is a Bay State invention. Remember that junior high school civics class…Massachusetts Democrat Elbridge Gerry...that early 19th century Essex County legislative district with its reptilian outlines. (By the way, it’s Gerry with a hard “g” –the soft “g” pronunciation of the piece of eponymous political punditry came later.)

Now the federal court has spoken. Seventeen Boston districts must be redrawn. Challenger candidates who have started getting their signatures to get on the ballot now don’t even know what district they are in or what incumbent they will face. What district are you in? I know what district I’m in now, but I don’t know what it’ll be come election day.

Voters from ethnic minorities disenfranchised. The conduct of the election thrown into chaos. And why? So that some incumbent white Democrat lawmakers would not have to face an election in which there was even the slightest possibility that they might not be re-elected.

I am not the first to notice that, with the advent of sophisticated computer programs for drawing district lines based on demographic data, incumbent legislators increasingly choose what voters to put in the district (thus assuring re-election) rather than the voters choosing the legislators. Life-time tenure is now the norm in the Massachusetts legislature.

According to data compiled by the nonpartisan nonprofit organization dedicated to citizen participation in government, Common Cause, in 2002 only six of the 160 members of the Massachusetts House were defeated for re-election. In the Massachusetts Senate the number was zero –in fact, according to Common Cause, no Massachusetts state senator has been defeated for re-election since 1996. I guess six out of 160 was just too high an unemployment rate for state representatives, so they jiggered their districts. Who knows: perhaps had they gotten away with it the House could match the Senate’s perfect record of total independence from the voters.

How far we have traveled from: “In order to prevent those, who are vested with authority, from becoming oppressors, the people have a right to cause their public officers to return to private life; and to fill up vacant places by certain and regular elections.” (Constitution of Massachusetts, Part 1, Article VIII).

David Trumbull is the chairman of the Boston Ward Three Republican Committee; he may be contacted at (617) 742-6881 or Boston's Ward Three includes the North End, West End, part of Beacon Hill, downtown, waterfront, Chinatown, and part of the South End.