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Be careful what you ask for

Date: 1/4/2011

Of course, one of the politically popular things to be saying here in Western Massachusetts these days is that the redistricting for Congress that is going to be required as a result of the 2010 census should not end up deleting either of the seats in Western Massachusetts.

This is short-term thinking. We really ought to think about what we are asking for because if we get it, it is likely that we will shortly be dialing another area code to reach either of the Congressional representatives for Western Massachusetts.

Even today the "Western Massachusetts" districts are not really Western Massachusetts districts at all. The first Congressional District includes three towns in Middlesex County and another 19 towns in Worcester County. Congressman Olver already maintains offices in Pittsfield, Holyoke and Fitchburg to cover this district. Likewise, the second Congressional District already includes one town in Norfolk County and another 24 towns in Worcester County. Congressman Neil already maintains offices in both Springfield and Milford to cover this district.

With 10 congressional seats, the average Massachusetts congressional district has a population of about 659,000 people. With redistricting, that average will go up to about 733,000 people. Each congressional district will have to grow by about 70,000 people.

The four counties of Western Massachusetts have a total 2009 population of 828,191 people. Under the current congressional district size, in the two districts representing Western Massachusetts the towns that we call "Western Massachusetts" are about 62.8 percent of the population of each of the two districts. Under the new congressional district size that percentage will drop to 56.5 percent.

Even in the last election Congressman Neal had a Republican opponent from Hopedale (Worcester County) who received 91,000 votes running against the incumbent Congressman who received just under 123,000 votes.

The only way the two Western Massachusetts districts can become large enough to maintain the two seats is for them to grow by going east. The additional 70,000 people needed to make up each of these districts will come from Central or Eastern Massachusetts communities.

One could look at this and say that keeping the two seats in this redistricting will at least mean that we have two Western Massachusetts Congressman for the next 10 years. I doubt that.

The four Western Massachusetts counties have been dropping as a proportion of total Massachusetts population for the last 40 years. In 1970 Berkshire, Franklin, Hamilton & Hampshire counties constituted just shy of 14 percent of the statewide population. As of 2009 that figure had dropped to 12.6 percent of the statewide population. Meanwhile, Worcester County has grown from 11.2 percent of the Commonwealth's population to 12.2 percent. Back in 1970, the four western counties had a total population which was about 125 percent of the population of Worcester County. Now the four western counties have a population which is just barely 103 percent of the population of Worcester County.

The bottom line is that sooner rather than later one or both of the Western Massachusetts congressional seats will be held by a Central Massachusetts incumbent if we continue to insist that Western Massachusetts have two seats.

On the other hand, if one were to say that Western Massachusetts should have one seat under a redistricted nine congressional seat Massachusetts, the four western counties have a population which is 113 percent of what is necessary for a congressional seat.

The bottom line is that if Western Massachusetts continues to be represented by two incumbents there is at least a 50 percent chance that one or both of them will be residents of central Massachusetts in a few years. If Western Massachusetts, on the other hand, becomes a one seat district there is no chance that you will have to dial outside of 413 to reach the local congressional office.

Paul Peter Nicolai