Galvin, GOP, Cities and Towns Oppose Bill
House Democrats approved a controversial change to how political district boundaries will be redrawn ahead of next year’s elections, muscling through legislation in the face of pointed opposition from Republican lawmakers, the Democratic secretary of state, and many local elections officials.
The House voted 131-29 on Thursday to advance a bill (H 3863) that would flip the order of operations in the once-every-decade redistricting and reprecincting process.
Municipalities usually go first in the process to draw new political districts and craft their local precincts based on the latest decennial U.S. Census population. The Legislature then follows, using the precincts as building blocks to construct districts for the House, Senate, Governor’s Council and Congress.
The Census Bureau announced in February that, due to the pandemic, it now plans to deliver redistricting data by Sept. 30 rather than March 31, with some information possibly arriving in early August. That delay makes it impossible for Massachusetts cities and towns to meet the existing statutory June 15 deadline to submit their redrawn precincts.
The House bill would scrap the June deadline and authorize the Legislature to go first by redrawing boundaries for state and federal offices using Census tracts and blocks. Cities and towns would then need to complete their reprecincting work within 30 days after the Legislature finalizes districts, and that step must be completed by Dec. 15.
Election Laws Committee Co-chair Rep. Dan Ryan called the bill, which would only apply to the current decennial process and sunset in 2022, “a measured response” to upheaval inflicted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This bill allows the drawing of new legislative districts in a timely manner while keeping us in compliance with state law and the state constitution,” Ryan said on the House floor. “We do this while still allowing municipalities to draw their own precinct and sub-precinct boundaries to meet their needs.”
The bill landed in the Senate just as that chamber adjourned for the weekend, with plans to return for a session on Monday.
Criticism of the quick push has come from a politically diverse group, including Secretary of State William Galvin — who said the timeline change would be “devastating” to cities and towns” — the House’s minority caucus, and municipal groups.
During Thursday’s debate, Republican Rep. Shawn Dooley of Norfolk said descriptions of the bill by Democrats as time-sensitive are “a fallacy.”
“Any claim of urgency is a false flag intended to stifle debate and rush this legislation through,” Dooley said. “There’s technology that allows for instantaneous reformatting with the click of a mouse, so to say that we’re in a horrific time crunch and that the cities and town clerks won’t be able to get this done on a timely basis is nonsense.”
House Minority Leader Brad Jones warned that the change could result in “more split communities and more litigation” from voters who feel the new lines do not equally distribute voting power.
Gov. Charlie Baker has not taken a public stance on the bill since it first emerged for a public hearing on Monday, but Galvin told lawmakers he would ask the governor to veto it if it reached his desk.
Several voting rights groups in the Drawing Democracy Coalition endorsed the switch, telling lawmakers at a Monday hearing that using the smaller, more specific data to craft state and federal districts rather than already-drawn local precincts will allow for more equal political boundaries that keep ethnic and racial communities together.
Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts and a steering committee member for the coalition, said Thursday that the updated timeline “has the flexibility needed to increase political power in BIPOC and immigrant communities.”
“In an unprecedented and delayed cycle, this will empower voters to know their electoral districts as soon as possible and empower municipalities by providing adequate time to draw precincts,” Foster said in a statement.
Democrats warned on Thursday, too, of another potential cascading effect: if municipalities go first in the process as planned and cannot start their reprecincting until the end of September, the Legislature might not finish drawing districts a full year before the 2022 elections.
And because the state constitution requires state representatives to live in the district for one year before they are elected, completing the process after Nov. 8, 2021 could imperil any incumbents or hopefuls who find themselves placed into a new district.
“There would be nothing worse in my mind for candidates who are planning on running based on certain information to discover that suddenly they no longer live in the district they’re planning to run in,” said Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and former town clerk.
Both branches are expected to advance the final bill containing new districts in the fall as they work to meet that residency deadline.
In a letter to lawmakers published Thursday morning, Massachusetts Municipal Association Executive Director Geoffrey Beckwith warned that creating state and federal electoral districts first and then requiring cities and towns to craft their precincts based on those maps “would lead to significant problems,” particularly in communities where voters select town meeting members to conduct business on their behalf.
“Of particular concern is the potential for state-set boundaries that are incompatible with local governance structures in towns with Representative Town Meeting or in municipalities that elect officials by districts or wards, creating major conflicts with home rule charters and throwing municipal bodies out of balance,” Beckwith wrote. “Legislative district lines could unknowingly divide communities of interest or create sections that are too large or small to match the required number of precincts or districts, leading to disarray.”
Beckwith acknowledged that the Census delay “is creating a real problem” for officials, and his organization suggested lawmakers instead embrace “a parallel process.”
He said the Legislature’s Redistricting Committee could begin the process using so-called legacy files that should be available by mid-August. If the panel believes it will need to split a city or town into multiple districts, the secretary of state’s office could work with municipal leaders to get precincts established before data heads to the Local Elections District Review Commission.
“The Elections Division believes that the Local Elections District Review Commission will be able to approve all precincts and submit the data to the Committee prior to the Committee releasing their draft maps for public comment,” Beckwith wrote. “While more complicated, this approach would protect against conflicts with local governance requirements and ensure that communities of interest have a voice in both the local and state process.”
Every single Democrat and independent Rep. Susannah Whipps of Athol supported the legislation, while all Republicans except Rep. Nicholas Boldyga of Southwick voted against it.