Back to district drawing board for Bay State

NOBODY in Massachusetts has more experience in reshaping legislative districts than House Speaker George Keverian. And with crayons, census figures, and maps in hand, the portly Everett Democrat is at it again.

This time he must satisfy not only fellow lawmakers but also the three-judge federal panel that earlier this month rejected a redistricting of the 160-member House that was crafted last summer.

Its chief draftsman then was state Rep. James Brett (D) of Boston. But it's unlikely that Mr. Keverian was uninvolved.

The court's rejection of the plan must be an embarrassment to the speaker who, over the past decade and a half, has skillfully and almost single-handedly redrawn legislative districts at least three times, with a minimum of criticism.

Speaker Keverian undoubtedly has a firm grip on those well-worn crayons now and is determined to come up with a plan that will satisfy both the courts and as many colleagues as possible.

But will he be able to come up with new districts that are nearly equal in population, even if that means the elective futures of some House incumbents could be in jeopardy?

Clearly there is more than one way to divide the commonwealth into the 160 nearly equal parts required to meet ``one man, one vote'' standards. Most of these alternatives, however, would almost surely trample on sensitive political toes in both parties.

As hard as Kevarian might try to come up with a redistricting aimed primarily at preserving most of the current House members, there is probably no way he can do so.

A better approach, in the interest of fair representation, might be a fresh start in shaping the territories from which members of the House will be elected beginning next fall.

That might not take any more time than would an attempt to make mathematical, though perhaps not geographical, sense of either the court-rejected districting, or the arrangement now in effect, which was based on the 1975 state census.

Even if the new division of the state meant that a substantial number of incumbents might have a tough time competing for a seat with different or vastly changed constituencies, that is hardly a justification for gerrymandering.

The federal court, in striking down the House districting, served notice that an arrangement where the population deviation from one district to another is as great as 22 percent is unacceptable.

That's something the legislative leadership should have known in light of past decisions involving other states in the nearly quarter century since the United States Supreme Court first handed down its ``one man, one vote'' decision.

Beyond geographic considerations, or political expediency, there was an arrangement where 62 of the 160 House districts, containing one-third of the commonwealth's inhabitants, would be underrepresented or overrepresented.

If what it takes to shape new elective territories more equally requires splitting some towns among two or more districts, then so be it, as the three-judge panel suggested in striking down the flawed plan.

Certainly the need to come up with something better should not pose much of a problem for Massachusetts lawmakers, unless the current effort becomes bogged down in legislative bickering.

Completing a new House redistricting plan in the next few weeks, if it passes muster with the federal court, should give the secretary of state's office time to get nomination papers printed for those wishing to run for the House.

It takes just 150 voter signatures for a candidate for state representative to get onto the September primary ballot.

Should the court find that the next House districting plan still falls short of ensuring reasonably equal House representation, the panel could come up with an interim blueprint of its own. It also might temporarily accept proposals submitted by those interested in getting the job done, and done right.

Federal courts elsewhere have used that approach. From a purely selfish standpoint, there is probably no way state lawmakers would surrender their redistricting responsibilities to an independent commission, as provided for in several other states.

Such a transfer of authority in Massachusetts would necessitate amending the state constitution, at best a time-consuming process.

Yet it may be an idea whose time has come in the state where the ``gerrymander'' began.

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