“Too much steam” building around redistricting process, senator says

Boston Statehouse

Sen. Will Brownsberger of Belmont. (SHNS/File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – A legislative push to amend the once-every-decade process for redrawing political boundaries will not emerge in the Senate until at least later in the week, and the chamber’s top redistricting official said senators will need to have a “conversation” after the proposal drew criticism from municipalities and Secretary of State William Galvin.

Sen. William Brownsberger, who co-chairs the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, told the News Service that he supports legislation the House approved last week that pushes back the June 15 deadline for municipalities to draw local voting precincts until after the Legislature crafts state and federal districts, a reversal of the typical order of operations deployed in prior decennial redistricting processes.

Brownsberger said the bill will not come up for a vote on Tuesday, when both branches will be in session to consider extending some pandemic-era policies that expired when the state of emergency lifted at 12:01 a.m. He was not certain when it might hit the Senate floor, but said he hopes it is soon.

House Democrats pushed through the bill (H 3863) over opposition from Republicans, city and town officials, and the state’s top elections officer, a fellow Democrat who is now enmeshed in the intra-party fight.

“I’d like to see us square it away,” Brownsberger said. “Obviously, when there’s controversy, there needs to be a conversation.”

In past cycles, municipalities drew their local voting precincts first following the release of U.S. Census population figures and the Legislature then used those lines as much as possible as building blocks to craft legislative and congressional districts. However, because of pandemic delays, the Census Bureau does not anticipate fully delivering 2020 data until the end of September, upending the redistricting process.

The House bill (H 3863) scraps the existing June 15 requirement for municipalities to finish their precincts and instead sets a new deadline 30 days after enactment of legislation dividing Massachusetts into House, Senate, Governor’s Council and congressional districts. Those changes would only apply to the current decennial process and would sunset in 2022.

“The timeline has to be extended,” Brownsberger said. “The only question is how much does this extend the timeline.”

Brownsberger said that although cities or towns in past cycles have completed their work before the Legislature did, he believes lawmakers already have “plenary power to draw the districts in compliance with law before or after the municipalities complete their task.”

“The Legislature can draw its districts how it believes the law requires them to do that, regardless of when the municipalities draw their districts,” he said. “This doesn’t change that reality. Even if we didn’t change this timeline, the Legislature could draw the districts, if they needed to, in whatever way implements the mission of creating equality among districts and protecting voting rights.”

Lawmakers could opt to start their work as soon as mid-August when so-called legacy files arrive from the Census Bureau with 2020 data, and work in parallel with cities and towns.

Several voting rights groups voiced their support for the legislative change, saying it could free up lawmakers to use Census tracts and blocks — smaller measurements of population — to build districts that are more equal and cohesive.

However, the Massachusetts Municipal Association cautioned that local governments would face “significant problems” if they were required to build their 2020 precincts based on already-drawn state and federal districts.

Galvin, a Democrat, alleged that lawmakers are seeking to change the process to shield themselves from electoral challenges, and he said cities and towns face no legal threat from his office for missing Tuesday’s statutory deadline.

Galvin, himself a former state representative, took aim specifically at Redistricting Committee Co-chair Rep. Michael Moran, alleging that Moran’s 18th Suffolk District was drawn in an odd shape four decades ago “to get rid of me.”

In a statement to the News Service, Moran said, “I was 4 years old when (Galvin) was first elected, 7 years old when the current seat was 1st drawn to look like it does today.”

“Bill Galvin was very much involved in drawing the current district and was 1st to represent it when (the) House went from 240 members to 160 members,” Moran said.

Amid the feud and concern from municipalities, Brownsberger said he believes there is “a little bit too much steam on both sides of this question.”

“This is positioned as a major power struggle in the press, but in my mind, it is a really narrow, technical question,” he said.

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