Growth of subprecincts could create balloting confusion

Boston Statehouse
Mass redistricting map

Image courtesy malegislature.gov

BOSTON (SHNS) – With Secretary of State William Galvin warning about potential voting “chaos” as a result of legislative redistricting, lawmakers have moved on to finalizing a new congressional district map and are hopeful that cities and towns over the next month can adjust their local precincts to make the administration of elections easier on themselves and for voters.

Gov. Charlie Baker late last week signed off on new district boundaries for all 200 seats in the House and Senate, disappointing Galvin who had asked for more time to propose “fixes” that he hoped would alleviate some of the headaches of administering elections over the next decade.

Galvin said the House and Senate maps have the potential to force the creation of hundreds of “subprecincts,” compared to the 12 that exist today, making the process of voting in dozens of communities more confusing.

“The objective was not to rewrite the legislative districts. That was up to them,” Galvin said, referring to lawmakers. “I’m hoping to create districts that people can vote in and give them a ballot that makes sense.”

He added, “It’s going to be chaotic. It’s going to adversely affect voters. I’m simply speaking to the mechanics of voting.”

The situation has arisen because the Legislature this year decided as a result of U.S. Census data being delayed that it had no choice but to redraw legislative districts before cities and towns could revisit local precinct boundaries. A law signed by Baker in October switched the traditional order of action, and gave municipalities 30 days after the completion of redistricting, or until Dec. 15, to draw local precincts.

Some communities, however, did not wait.

Galvin’s office said at the beginning of November that 163 of the state’s 351 cities and towns have had new local precinct maps approved by the Local Elections District Review Commission, and in many cases the new legislative district lines bisect those precincts.

Rep. Michael Moran, a Boston Democrat and House chair of the Redistricting Committee, said all communities were given extra time until Dec. 15 to make “all appropriate changes that they would need to make.”

“I have every confidence in our clerks in this state and their ability to administer these elections properly. If there is any way that we could be helpful to them, we are always willing to listen and try to be as helpful as we can,” Moran said.

Sen. William Brownsberger, who led the redistricting effort for the Senate, also said that “in many instances” he believes cities and towns who have already drawn their precincts will be able to go back and fit them to the legislative districts before Dec. 15.

“I have a lot of respect for the secretary and tons of respect for his people but I’m pretty confident now that these new boundaries are law that they’ll make a lot of progress addressing any problems that may exist,” Brownsberger said.

Galvin, however, said in many cases that just won’t be possible, taking particular aim at Moran who he and his office said in a memo and in an interview was not responsive to concerns of local officials in places like Cambridge and Chelmsford.

“That’s one of fallacies being promoted by the House because the way these precincts were splintered they cannot be redrawn,” Galvin told the News Service on the Monday.

The Joint Committee of Redistricting plans to hold a hearing on Tuesday to solicit feedback on draft Congressional and Governor’s Council Districts where the testimony is expected to focus, in large part, on who should represent the South Coast.

Baker on Monday had no comment when asked about whether Fall River and New Bedford should be in the same district, and Senate President Karen Spilka deferred to the committee.

Galvin does not plan to testify, nor does he anticipate asking Baker to intervene in any way now that the legislative maps have been signed into law.

“Obviously, I’m not asking the governor for anything else because I’m not going to waste any more time than I already have,” Galvin said.

Galvin said he was aware of a lawsuit from Randolph moving forward over redistricting, as well as several other communities considering legal action.

The News Service separately obtained a letter addressed to Baker from the law firm Brooks and DeRensis informing the governor and other parties that a federal lawsuit was being prepared on behalf of voters in Randolph alleging the House map illegally diluted the voting power of people of color.

“There may well be more and if there are we’ll have to deal with them in the context of the courts,” Galvin said.

Just how serious the problem of subprecincts will be come 2022 remains to be seen. One person involved in municipal government issues said it would likely impact just a small percentage, maybe 5 percent, of precincts statewide.

“Is it chaos or is it just a little more confusing for a select number of communities. I think the latter is how I would describe it,” said the person, who asked to remain anonymous out of a desire to stay out of the conflict between Galvin and the Legislature.

Before Baker signed the House and Senate redistricting plans on Thursday, Galvin’s office sent a memo to the governor asking him to “delay the signing.”

The memo, written by Michelle Tassinari, general counsel in the secretary’s Elections Division, and John Rosenberry, legislative director, said that in 24 communities analyzed the secretary of state’s office had identified more than 150 subprecincts that will need to be created.

Precincts are supposed to contain no more than 4,000 people and be equal in size within a given municipalities, plus or minus 5 percent. Galvin’s office said that after the 2011 redistricting process the state had 2,174 local precincts, including just 12 subprecincts for congressional and House redistricting purposes.

The memo, written before the release of a Congressional district map, described each split precinct as “an opportunity for voter disenfranchisement” and warned that the problem could be exacerbated by how the state’s nine districts for U.S. House seats get drawn.

“They’ve complicated it further,” Galvin said Monday, now that he’s seen the draft congressional map. “The most egregious case is Cambridge, which was already a mess.”

Galvin said that in Cambridge, of the city’s 33 precincts there would be 19 precincts requiring subdivision. He said some precincts would be split into three sections to accommodate new House districts, and also be split between two Senate districts, but not along the same lines.

He said his office was still evaluating the need for subprecincts in Boston, and also flagged Chelmsford, Newton, Haverhill and Chicopee as areas of concern. In Lexington, he said the Senate used proposed new precincts lines and the House used old precinct lines.

Brownsberger noted that the Senate only divided 11 communities to create its 40 districts.

In total, only 92 communities are at risk of requiring subprecincts, including the 59 municipalities that have city or town councils and 33 that have representative town meeting. Some of those communities elect officials on an at-large basis and therefore would not be impacted.

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