Tiff erupts over building blocks for new political districts

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FILE – This April 5, 2020, file photo shows an envelope containing a 2020 census letter mailed to a U.S. resident in Detroit. Michigan’s slow population growth over the past decade will cost the state a U.S. House seat, continuing a decades-long trend as job-seekers and retirees have fled to other states. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

BOSTON (SHNS) – As local officials wait for the U.S. Census Bureau to provide community-specific population data, Secretary of State William Galvin said Monday that legislation to put Congressional and legislative redistricting ahead of local reprecincting would be “devastating” to cities and towns, putting him at odds with voting rights advocates.

Galvin, the state’s chief elections official, testified before a legislative committee that it would be a mistake to pass a bill that would reverse the order of the reprecincting and redistricting, arguing that it would strip the authority of local government to define its own political geography.

The secretary’s position puts him at odds with the House Chair of the Redistricting Committee Michael Moran, a fellow Democrat from the Brighton neighborhood of Boston, who has proposed to reverse the traditional order and follow a process used in the majority of states.

“I will urge the governor to veto this is if if gets to that point. I believe he will,” Galvin said.

But advocates say the change would allow the Committee on Redistricting to draw more precise and equitable House, Senate and Congressional districts without worrying about creating confusion for voters by subdividing local precincts.

It would also give the Legislature more time to finalize state and federal district maps before November, which is the time when lawmakers planning to seek reelection must make sure they reside within their new district boundaries.

Lawmakers are preparing for the decennial process of redrawing the district boundaries for state and federal offices based on the 2020 Census, which recorded 7.4 percent population growth in Massachusetts over the past decade, bringing the state’s population to 7,029,917. Delays in the count and the release of data, however, have shortened the window state Democrats have to produce new maps by the fall.

The U.S. Census Bureau has said local data will be delivered by Sept. 30, with the potential for some information to be shared in early August. By changing the order of redistricting and reprecincting, legislators could begin to prepare final maps as soon as the data is released rather than wait for local precincts to solidified, supporters said.

Moran, the assistant House majority leader who led the redistricting process 10 years ago, has filed a bill (H 820) that would remove the June 15 deadline for cities and towns to redraw local precinct boundaries, and instead require the Legislature to first redraw the boundaries for state and federal offices. Local governments would then have 30 days after the governor signs off on the new maps to conform their precincts to the new districts.

The change would free up the Committee on Redistricting to use Census tracts and blocks to build new districts without having to worry about subdividing local precincts.

Supporters say these building blocks are smaller and more precise than local wards and precincts and will allow the Redistricting Committee to more easily create districts that are not only equal in size, but also ones that keep ethnic and racial communities together.

Moran did not testify on his legislation, but members of a coalition of voting rights groups known as the Drawing Democracy Coalition weighed in with their support.

“This legislation is going to be that imperative fix to continue to recognize the values of equity and racial justice here in the commonwealth so we can continue to draw district lines and have the Redistricting Committee have the flexibility to increase political power in communities of color,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program with the ACLU of Massachusetts.

Galvin argued that local governments are best suited to adapt to the population changes that have occurred over the last decade. While he advised against using Census blocks to redraw districts, he said there is nothing stopping the Legislature from doing so if it wanted.

In the past, Galvin said his office has had to accommodate state and federal districts that didn’t follow precinct boundaries by giving voters in those precincts different ballots. While confusing for voters, Galvin said he would do it again if necessary.

“Have there been new ethnic communities come in? Have there been changes? Is there new construction? Are there new factors? Local governments are best able to deal with this,” Galvin said.

Galvin also said that there is no threat of litigation against cities and towns if they miss the June 15 deadline for reprecincting because the U.S. Census Bureau doesn’t expect to provide the necessary data until at least August.

“Nothing is further from the truth. Nothing. The fact is my office would not seek litigation against our communities,” Galvin said.

Election Laws Committee Co-Chair Sen. Barry Finegold said he was struggling with how far apart Galvin and the chairs of the Redistricting Committee were on the issue.

“I’m trying to understand where this lack of the meeting of the minds is at right now,” Finegold said.

The bill was the only item on the agenda for the Election Laws Committee, which is accepting written testimony until 5 p.m. on Monday, and Finegold acknowledged a need to “move quickly” if the committee is going to recommend the bill.

“Obviously, you all have given us a lot to think about,” the Andover Democrat said.

During his testimony, Galvin also referred to a redraft of the Moran bill that he described as “worse than the original,” but members of the committee, including the House Co-Chair Rep. Dan Ryan, said they had not seen a new version of the bill.

“I don’t understand why we would have a hearing when members of the committee don’t have a copy of this legislation that’s being put forth,” said Rep. Shawn Dooley, who said he agreed “wholeheartedly” with Galvin.

Ryan said he would work to get Dooley a copy of the redraft immediately, then admitted, “I have not seen a redraft myself.”

Moran told the News Service that he and Senate Redistricting Chairman William Brownsberger submitted to the committee on Monday morning redrafted version of the bill.

“The thrust of it is there are opportunities out there to correct for a lot of thing that have been baked into the system for decades,” Moran said. “There are people who are marginalized because of precincts built many years yea ago and where we can correct that I have every intention of doing that this time around.”

Members of the committee weren’t the only ones struggling to reconcile the opposing views on the issue.

Lydia Lowe, executive director of the Chinese Progressive Association, said she was testifying in support of Moran’s bill, but proceeded to detail why she believed it was important for local precincts to be drawn “prior to” the redrawing of state and federal district boundaries.

When Dooley asked Lowe to clarify, she said she was “not an expert on this.” “Maybe I’m confused personally, but what I think is important is we need to have the accurate data and we need to be able to use that accurate date for redistricting,” Lowe said.

Common Cause Massachusetts Executive Director Geoff Foster and Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, the executive director of MassVOTE, also testified in support of the Moran bill.

Avi Green, the former director of MassVOTE, said 80 communities in Massachusetts have only one precinct and he testified that for the vast majority of the remaining cities and towns their precincts would easily fit into the new district boundaries.

“We know it can work because the vast majority of other states do it this way,” he said.

Green also said the majority of district maps that wind up getting litigated in the courts relate to state legislative and Congressional districts, not local seats such as town meeting members.

“You don’t have a lot of time to create good maps and you want to create very good ones, in a relatively short amount of time,” Green said.

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