Municipal officials oppose legislative redistricting proposal

Key issue: Who should go first in redrawing districts

AS THE HOUSE prepares to move forward with a major change to how redistricting is done, city and town officials are sounding the alarm that the change could have confusing unintended consequences, disrupting elections and municipal operations.

Rep. Michael Moran, a Brighton Democrat who chairs the House’s redistricting committee, proposed legislation that would reverse the order of how districts are drawn. Typically, cities and towns draw their voting precincts first, referred to as reprecincting. Then the Legislature draws the congressional, state Senate, and state House districts, referred to as redistricting. Moran’s bill would flip the order and let the Legislature go first.

The House Ways and Means Committee released a version of Moran’s bill Wednesday, indicating that the House could vote on it as soon as Thursday.

In a letter to lawmakers submitted Wednesday, the Massachusetts City Clerks Association said clerks should retain the authority to redesign their precincts first because clerks “do so without bias to any elected officers or candidates.” 

The association’s letter said clerks have already started working on redrawing precincts, based off preliminary estimates. “Clerks and our local officials know our community the best, we know where existing established neighborhoods are as well as if there are areas of new residents, where the most diverse areas are, and how to properly address these changes in our local reprecincting efforts.” the association wrote.

The central question revolves around whether the Legislature must respect the boundaries drawn locally or whether the municipalities must respect the boundaries drawn by state lawmakers. If one did not respect the other’s boundaries, that could result in split precincts where two voters at the same polling place would get different ballots, creating major potential for confusion.

The State House News Service reported, based on testimony at a Monday hearing, that advocates for the change say it would free the Legislature up to draw more precise districts, without worrying about splitting local precincts. Because of delays in when this year’s census numbers are being released, it would let lawmakers finish redistricting in time for state legislators to make sure they are living within the boundaries of their new districts.

But Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin said he would urge Gov. Charlie Baker to veto the bill. According to the Gloucester Daily Times, Galvin argued that the policy would preempt local officials from drawing their own districts because they will be bound by the legislative districts – whether or not those districts accurately reflect changes in the local community. Galvin framed it as a legislative power grab away from municipal officials.

Voting rights groups like Common Cause and the ACLU support the bill, arguing that it would give the Legislature better tools to identify underrepresented minority groups and give minorities a greater voting bloc.

But in addition to the city clerks, the Massachusetts Municipal Association also weighed in Wednesday opposing the bill.

Meet the Author

Shira Schoenberg

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, sent a letter to lawmakers saying that city and town officials are in the best positions to identify and consider racial and ethnic communities of interest as they draw precinct lines. Municipalities are also required to solicit public input. “If the state draws districts first, it could unknowingly split neighborhoods and communities of interest who wish to be connected and represented in their local government and municipal elections,” Beckwith wrote.

He noted that state-drawn lines could inadvertently conflict with local governance structures in places that have town meetings or that elect local governing bodies by districts and wards. “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 wrote.

Even if the Legislature passes the bill, the opposition of municipal officials is significant because Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito – both former municipal officials – are strong supporters of local control. If Baker vetoes the bill or demands an amendment, lawmakers would need to muster a two-thirds majority for the bill to become law.