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Yet Another Impasse

Hartford Courant editorial

December 29, 2011

If we've learned one thing from the thus-far unrequited effort to create new boundaries for the state's five congressional districts, it's that neither side is ecstatically happy with the process. Then why don't we consider changing it?

The latest step in this marathon political dance took place Tuesday when the Connecticut Supreme Court ordered Democrats and Republicans on the legislature's deadlocked redistricting commission to keep plugging to come to an agreement on a congressional map.

But the court also prepared for the much more likely step of appointing a special master to oversee the drawing of new districts before the Feb.15 deadline imposed by the state Constitution.


The state's political boundaries must be readjusted after each 10-year census to create equal districts by population to meet the court-ordered "one person, one vote" standard. The work is given to a committee of eight legislators. The Senate president, the speaker of the House and the minority party leaders of both chambers usually name themselves and four more lawmakers to the Reapportionment Committee.

This takes place in February. They are supposed to have a plan finished and approved by Sept. 15. If the deadline isn't met -- it usually isn't and wasn't this year -- the panel selects a ninth member. The plan is supposed to go to the state Supreme Court if not finished by Nov. 30; after an extension, it has. The court is supposed to break the deadlock, but is reluctant to step too heavily on what it views as a legislative function. Thus the move toward a special master.

Redistricting involves both congressional and state legislative boundaries. Though the panel succeeded in creating new boundaries for the state House and Senate, critics say that since the work is done by legislators usually seeking re-election, it is heavily influenced by the desire to protect incumbents, and that more attention is paid to the people representing the districts than to the districts themselves.

Also, despite campaign finance reform, more than half of legislative races are either uncontested or uncompetitive. The more competitive races, the more vigorous and representative the legislature.

So although a bipartisan panel is a good thing, human nature suggests the members may be inclined to help each other stay in office.


One way around that would be to have an outside body, a citizens commission or a panel of retired judges, do the work. A dozen states take this approach, though it's been controversial in several of the states that do it. And it's unlikely that the legislature would give up its power to draw district lines.

Another option, suggested by Senate President Donald Williams, is to, in effect, make the ninth member the special master. When the original committee fails to reach agreement, they name a ninth member. Although this member is thought of as the tiebreaker, that isn't the way it works. By long tradition, the ninth member just helps push the process along until all eight other members reach agreement. In other words, there are no 5-4 votes, only 9-0 votes.

But what if the kind of person the court is looking for -- a nonpartisan, out-of-state expert in redistricting -- was brought in with the understanding that he or she would in fact break ties? Would it get better results faster? How would such an expert be appointed?

Legislators and good-government advocates such as the League of Women Voters or Common Cause need to study the question. There is no perfect system. Connecticut's may be better than some. Given how it's (not) working, the formula needs more work.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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