BOSTON (SHNS) – With Secretary of State William Galvin pressing to thwart a legislative effort to alter the traditional redistricting process, voting rights advocates said Wednesday they disagree with the Democrat when he suggests the reform is intended to give House incumbents an easier path to reelection.
Members of the Drawing Democracy Coalition also said they would like to see the change in the timing of the drawing of local precincts adopted permanently, but were willing to support a one-time solution if that was necessary to get a bill passed.
“This is purely a voting rights issue and not an issue designed to focus on any particular incumbent,” said Lydia Lowe, of Chinese Progressive Political Action in Boston.
The House last week passed legislation (H 3863) that would require cities and towns to wait until after the Legislature finalizes new state and federal districts based on the 2020 Census to go through the reprecincting process, a change from the typical order of business.
The reform has been pitched as one that is necessary in response to delays in the release of information from the U.S. Census Bureau, and also one that would put Massachusetts in line with the majority of other states and allow lawmakers to create more inclusive districts.
But the proposed change has been met by resistance from the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the state elections division chief and Galvin, who has said he will ask Gov. Charlie Baker to veto the bill if it passes.
State law currently requires municipalities to have precincts redrawn by June 15 to reflect changes in population recorded by the decennial Census, and those precincts often become the building blocks for legislative and Congressional districts.
That deadline passed on Tuesday, but Galvin has said it carries no legal repercussions because his office has no intention of filing lawsuits against cities and towns that are still waiting on population data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Instead, Galvin has called the bill a “power grab” by the Legislature and one driven by House leaders who he said are most interested in “making districts that are as favorable to themselves as they can.”
“I don’t believe the argument that this is just incumbency protection is true given that our concerns are very much about the Voting Rights Act implementation,” said Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table.
Huang’s organization is part of the coalition advocating for passage of Rep. Michael Moran’s bill that currently awaits a vote in the Senate. Sen. William Brownsberger, the co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, said senators will need to have a “conversation” about the bill given the controversy that has erupted around it, but he supports the change.
Though Massachusetts Voter Table does not endorse candidates, Huang said the sooner the Legislature is able to finalize new district maps, the easier it will be for candidates, including potential challengers, to analyze the new districts, assess their chances and mount credible campaigns.
Due to pandemic-related delays in the 2020 Census, the federal government does not expect to release complete data until the end of September, though some local information could be available by early August. The Legislature must complete its work by the end of the year, and Massachusetts House candidates are required by law to live in the district they hope to represent at least a full year prior to next November’s election.
Elizabeth Foster-Nolan, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, said the delay means cities and towns will be asked to do in a few weeks what might normally take several months, at the same time many cities are preparing for fall elections.
The consequences of making a mistake with reprecincting, Foster-Nolan said, includes exposure to litigation if a municipality inadvertently violates anyone’s voting rights in the rush to complete maps.
“That is a tremendous burden to place on municipalities for such important work,” she said.
Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoff Beckwith has argued that the change would create problems for municipalities with representative Town Meeting, and in other cities and towns with more than one precinct that elect local officials in districts based on wards and precincts.
While delays in the release of detailed local population data is one reason supporters are advocating for the bill, the reform was actually one of many recommendations made by Moran and former Senate President Stan Rosenberg after they led the 2010 redistricting effort.
Moran filed a similar bill in 2019, long before COVID-19 arrived and the U.S. Census encountered delays, lawsuits and other challenges that have created the current time crunch.
“One of the things they found in that process was that there were some additional constraints because of the order of reprecincting and redistricting,” said Rahsaan Hall, the racial justice director for the ACLU of Massachusetts.
Hall said the bill was “imperative” because it would ensure that the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting “has the flexibility needed to increase political power in communities of color and immigrant communities.”
Without local precinct boundaries to help guide their map drawing efforts, the committee would instead refer to Census blocks and tracts. Advocates say that would allow for more precision when deciding how best to group communities with shared interests that tend to vote as a bloc.
“In order to not dilute the voting strength of these communities, the committee will need to not be constrained by precincts,” Hall said.
While nothing in state law prevents the Committee on Redistricting from using Census blocks instead of precincts to redraw districts or from starting its process before reprecincting concludes, Huang said “clarity is very useful and that’s why we support this bill.”
The bill that passed the House had been redrafted by the Committee on Ways and Means based on a recommendation by Moran and Brownsberger that a clause be added to sunset the changes in 2022.
Advocates, however, say they would like to see the process permanently altered so that state and federal districts are redrawn before local precincts every 10 years.
“Ultimately we believe that this should be permanent,” Hall said. “There’s an aspect of it that requires us to deal with the very specific situation before us now and understanding the way the Legislature works it’s best to deal with the critical situation at hand and come back for the long-term approach, but ultimately it’s the belief of this coalition that this should be a permanent change.”