Redestricting requires some flexibility this year

Redraw district lines first, then construct precincts

THE 2020 CENSUS was unlike any other, with a global pandemic that restricted in-person outreach and a presidential administration intent on undermining the integrity of the count at every turn. As a result, the Census data needed to redraw state legislative and congressional districts won’t be released until August and September – a six month delay from the typical timeline.

This delay makes the redistricting process much more difficult. The Massachusetts Constitution sets a November 8, 2021 deadline for new maps. This gives the Legislature only a couple of months to redraw districts, gather public input, and send the final maps to the governor.

The Drawing Democracy Coalition – which is committed to ensuring that historically underrepresented communities have the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice who best reflect their needs and interests – is confident that we can meet this deadline while continuing to ensure that the process is fair and transparent. But there is one small change that would make this whole process run a lot more smoothly.

The Massachusetts Legislature recently passed An Act Relative to Reprecincting (H.3863), which calls for a modest, commonsense change that will help ensure an equitable and fair redistricting process. In Massachusetts, municipalities have historically drawn their new precincts before redistricting takes place. But the delay in redistricting means that cities and towns that usually get months to make new precincts will be expected to do so in just a few weeks, and any oversights in their processes could subject them to the risk of litigation for violating voting rights requirements. Some municipalities will be attempting to run this process just as they prepare for fall elections.

H.3863 is the best way to address these challenges. It will allow the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting to use the new Census data for redistricting as soon as the data arrives, and then cities and towns can draw their precincts after the new district lines are set. This reform would put Massachusetts on par with much of the country, which conducts redistricting before reprecincting.

This simple change will lead to better maps and better experiences for voters. By finalizing electoral districts as soon as possible, voters will more quickly know their new district and incumbent, allowing them to meaningfully advocate on issues of importance to them. This will also provide candidates more time to prepare their campaigns, thus lowering some of the barriers that exist for diverse and first time candidates.

Furthermore, passage of H.3863 will provide the redistricting committee with the flexibility needed to redraw district lines that increase the political power of BIPOC, immigrant, and low-income communities. Without the constraint of precincts, the Legislature can justly maximize the representation of communities of interest and ensure the maps fulfill the Voting Rights Act requirements so that voters in these communities can elect the candidates of their choice.

To be clear, municipalities would still draw their own precincts under this bill – they would just do so after the redistricting process is completed. The power to draw municipal election boundaries and deal with municipal elections would remain with municipalities. Municipalities will benefit from receiving adequate time to draw precincts. Simply put: it will make the reprecincting process easier for town clerks and city elections officials.

Proceeding with redistricting in this way is a modest step supported by the Commonwealth’s leading community organizers, civil rights lawyers, public policy advocates, data and mapping experts, and political scientists. Additionally, the chairs of the Joint Committee on Redistricting recommended this reform in their final report on the redistricting process in 2011.

Meet the Author
Meet the Author
Gov. Charlie Baker should swiftly sign An Act Relative to Reprecincting to ensure that the redistricting process advances on time and remains fair and equitable. This is the best solution to address the challenges of the delayed census data.

Cheryl Clyburn Crawford is the executive director of MassVOTE, which is a Drawing Democracy Coalition steering committee member, and the first vice president of the NAACP-Boston Branch. Beth Huang is the executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, serves on the steering committees of Raise Up Massachusetts and the Election Modernization Coalition, and convenes the Drawing Democracy Coalition.