Precincts could be subdivided in redistricting effort

Boston Statehouse
Boston State House

Boston State House

BOSTON (SHNS) – Some local voting precincts may be split into two state legislative districts in the ongoing decennial redistricting effort, a top lawmaker said Monday during a hearing at which constituents called for reshaping the Fourth Congressional District.

While the Legislature presses forward with a plan to amend the traditional process for redrawing political boundaries, Redistricting Committee Co-chair Sen. William Brownsberger said there could be some instances in which individual city or town precincts are impacted and pledged that lawmakers will make decisions “in the most transparent way possible.”

“We are not and will not tie the hands of municipalities in how they choose to do their reprecincting,” Brownsberger said. “The worst case is there will be some voter headaches and some clerical headaches in some towns where yes, a precinct might be split into two legislative districts. That could happen, but we’ll be working with you, we’ll be working with all the clerks, and hopefully, a little bit of iteration, a little bit of back and forth, and we can avoid as many problems as possible.”

The House and Senate have both approved legislation (H 3863/S 2489) that would require municipalities to create their voting wards and precincts after the Legislature enacts its bill carving the state into congressional, legislative and Governor’s Council districts, reversing the order deployed in past cycles.

Lawmakers have not yet advanced a final version of the proposal — which drew vocal criticism from the Massachusetts Municipal Association and Secretary of State William Galvin — to Gov. Charlie Baker.

Wellesley Town Clerk K.C. Kato told Brownsberger’s panel that flipping the process could create additional obstacles for both elections administrators and voters.

“We know our community, the natural boundaries, the new polling locations and other local nuances,” Kato said, urging lawmakers to drop the push. “If you begin with the old precincts, we know they are not the right size and could result in individual precincts being split across two legislative districts, which would create elections operations issues and voter confusion.”

If lawmakers opted to divide an existing city or town precinct across multiple state legislative districts, it would create subprecincts and local officials would need to offer different ballots for those races.

Several Massachusetts communities span multiple state House or state Senate districts, but in almost all of those cases, they are divided along local ward or precinct lines. Only one precinct in Massachusetts is subdivided into two state legislative districts, according to Galvin’s office: in Boston, Ward 5 Precinct 2 falls into the Ninth Suffolk House district, while Ward 5 Precinct 2A is in the Seventh Suffolk House district.

Eight other municipalities — Palmer, Bellingham, Winchendon, Fall River, Raynham, Cambridge, Sudbury and Andover — have subprecincts for congressional districts, Galvin’s office said.

In past cycles, cities and towns have drawn their precincts first, which often served as building blocks for the districts the Legislature decides.

Some lawmakers, including Redistricting Committee Co-chair Rep. Mike Moran, have suggested reversing that order — a change that would align Massachusetts with the order of operations in a majority of other states — for years.

Their efforts gained new traction due to the pandemic. The U.S. Census Bureau does not expect to deliver complete population data until the end of September, with some local information available by mid-August, which Brownsberger said would not leave enough time under the traditional process for the Legislature to complete its work by an end-of-October deadline.

“There is no feasible way for the legislative process to wait for the local reprecincting process this year,” he said. “We are going to have to move forward. We will be moving forward at the same time as the local reprecincting process, but we will do so in the most transparent way possible.”

Supporters of the shift, who include several voting rights advocates with the Drawing Democracy Coalition, say it would help lawmakers overcome the pandemic-fueled challenges while boosting political power in communities of color.

Brownsberger and Moran’s panel is partway through a series of hearings to receive public testimony from constituents in the state’s nine congressional districts about redistricting. Massachusetts will retain all nine districts following the 2020 Census, though the map will need to be updated to accommodate population shifts over the past decade.

The Fourth Congressional District, the subject of Monday’s hearing, spans a wide geographic and socioeconomic range, running from Fall River and Freetown northward to MetroWest communities and several wealthy suburban enclaves such as Brookline and Wellesley. Rep. Carol Doherty, a Taunton Democrat, called it a “long, funny-shaped, snaking district.”

Several speakers who testified Monday, including Doherty, urged the Redistricting Committee to keep their communities in the Fourth Congressional District so they could continue to be represented by first-term Congressman Jake Auchincloss.

“Whatever it is you do, at the end of the day, we would very much like to keep his hometown (Newton) in our district,” Doherty said.

One of the largest questions the committee will need to answer is how to handle Fall River.

The most recent American Community Survey data deem Fall River and its population of more than 89,000 as the largest city in the district, while estimates produced by the UMass Donahue Institute indicate Fall River is the district’s second-largest city behind Newton.

The northwestern chunk of Fall River is in the Fourth Congressional District that Auchincloss represents, while the remainder falls into the Ninth Congressional District represented by Congressman William Keating.

For Fall River Mayor Paul Coogan, that’s more or less how the map should stay.

“Fall River is in need of a bunch of help, and we believe having two congresspeople to help us in Washington is not a negative thing,” Coogan told the committee, noting he had formed a “great relationship” with Auchincloss. “When I got to meet Jake during the campaign, I ended up endorsing him because I thought he was a quality person. He’s a straight shooter, and we just don’t want to lose him. If we could stay with the district as configured now, that would help us immensely.”

Several other residents and advocates called instead for lawmakers to shift Fall River fully into the Ninth Congressional District, saying that residents feel more aligned with neighboring New Bedford than they do with the Fourth District’s northernmost communities.

“Our conversations with citizens of Fall River tell us that this divide creates confusion, not only on the part of voters but also a diffusion of responsibility for representatives,” said Sophie Kripp, an advocate with the Coalition for Social Justice. “This works often against accountability, something that is so important in democracy, especially for a large population of marginalized communities so present in Fall River.”

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