FROM OUR PRINTED MAY 2021 EDITION
Lawmakers Wade Into Redistricting Without Key Data
by Matt Murphy
State House News Service
APRIL 14, 2021…..By most accounts, the redistricting process 10 years ago was a huge success. The district maps produced by legislative leaders avoided challenges in federal court for the first time in decades and most stakeholders walked away feeling heard.
Despite losing a congressional seat, the Legislature created double the number of majority-minority districts in the Massachusetts House and established the newly drawn U.S. House district now held by U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley – the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress.
But with activists clamoring to do more to increase minority representation on Beacon Hill, House and Senate leaders set about trying to recreate that bonhomie as they held the first of more than a dozen hearings being planned over the next six to seven months.
The Special Joint Committee on Redistricting led by Senate President Pro Tempore William Brownsberger, of Belmont, and Assistant House Majority Leader Michael Moran, of Boston, will redraw the political boundaries that will shape elections and the faces of state politics for the next decade.
Moran is a veteran of the process, having sat in the same position in 2011 opposite former Senate President Stanley Rosenberg. “If I had a walk-up song it would probably be Shalamar, ‘Second Time Around,'” Moran joked on Wednesday.
Unlike 10 years ago, the committee lacks some vital information – a count of how many people live in Massachusetts and where. The U.S. Census Bureau has delayed the finalization of the 2020 nationwide population count by six months, telling states the population data will be available by September 30.
But as they wait for the federal government to provide that data by the fall, the committee is not waiting to begin thinking about how they will approach the task of redrawing political boundaries for nine congressional seats, 40 Senate districts, 160 House districts and eight Governor’s Council districts.
Moran said the committee’s intention is to hold hearings in each of the state’s nine congressional districts, as well as a “close-out” hearing, before the end of August. After the maps are released and a public comment period, the committee will then hold at least two more hearings to gather feedback.
“This is a very weighty committee with a lot of people on this committee that serve in House and Senate leadership,” Moran said. “The Senate president and the speaker have been very, very good and clear that they would like to see as open and transparent a process as possible.”
The process started with testimony from representatives of various organizations comprising what is being called the Redrawing Democracy Coalition. The coalition’s goal, leaders said, is a statewide redistricting effort that reflects the diversity of the growing population in Massachusetts and empowers communities of color to elect candidates of their choice.
Beth Huang, director of the Massachusetts Voter Table, said the 2020 Census will likely show that Massachusetts has gained 5 percent population, growing to more than 6.8 million residents due to immigration. But she said many regions have lost population, which will lead to shifts in political district boundaries.
“We’re looking for a statewide map that keeps our communities of interest whole and supports majority-minority or majority BIPOC districts where people of color make up a majority of residents of the district,” Huang said.
Rahsaan Hall, director of the racial justice program for the ACLU of Massachusetts, said he was excited and even “a little giddy” about the diverse racial, ethnic and geographic makeup of the committee.
“It’s important for voters of color to be able to elect candidates of their choice,” Hall said.
To engage the public in the process, Moran and Brownsberger said the committee launched a website Wednesday that explains the redistricting process, shares relevant court decisions and current maps and makes a tool available for individuals and groups to try drawing their own districts and submit the maps to the committee.
“My greatest hope is that we can have a hearing and redistricting process over the next six or seven months that goes as smoothly as what you did in 2010,” Brownsberger said. The committee did not discuss whether they would need to move deadlines for city and towns to redraw precincts, or residency requirements for the 2022 elections that may be impacted by the lateness of the Census data.
Eva Millona, president of Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition, requested that the committee prioritize holding hearings in so-called “Gateway” cities that tend to have higher concentrations of minority and immigrant populations, as well as in Boston and rural communities.
She also asked that closed captioning be used to break through language barriers.
“We faced im-mense challenges in ensuring that the 2020 Census count included immigrant communities in the midst of a pandemic, both viral and political, that continues to unfold,” Millona said. “We must apply lessons from our Census work to the redistricting process, particularly the importance of meeting immigrant communities where they are with multilingual, culturally competent outreach and education.”
Members of the Drawing Democracy Coalition are interested in seeing the committee produce maps, to the extent possible, that keep communities of interest, as well as racial and language minorities together without “going overboard with packing.”
Coalition leaders also said the committee should try to maintain municipal boundaries when possible.
Lawyers for Civil Rights recently commissioned a study that suggested at least five state House of Representatives districts and one Senate district have gone from being mostly white to majority-minority over the past 10 years. There are currently 20 majority-minority House districts and three Senate districts, though only nine of the 20 majority-minority districts in the House are represented by a minority.
“We may draw it but it might not come,” Moran said.
Roberto Jimenez Rivera, a member of the Chelsea School Committee and an organizer with the Boston Teachers Union, said there is a difference between a district having residents of color and voters of color. Rivera and Hall said the committee should not just look at the racial and ethnic makeup of the population in a given district, but also citizen voting age data and the tendency of those groups to vote and vote as a bloc.
Isabel Gonzales Webster, executive director of Worcester Interfaith, said the state’s second largest city is a prime example of how district boundaries can impact representation.
Despite a growing minority population and school district with 70 percent students of color, Webster said the city has never had a person of color represent Worcester on Beacon Hill. Of the city’s five House districts and two Senate districts, only three districts are contained entirely within Worcester.
“This way of drawing our city makes it hard to have senators and representatives of color,” Webster said. “We have a huge problem in Worcester and that is why there is huge mistrust and apathy among communities of color with our government.”
Moran noted that in 2011 the 15th Worcester District was created as a majority-minority district, but he committed to revisiting the data to see if that district can be strengthened 10 years later or if new ones could be created.
“There was only one opportunity to draw a majority-minority district in Worcester and we did it,” he said.
Subsequently, there was an open race in that district won by Rep. Mary Keefe.
“The person that won wasn’t a minority, but we did everything we could do to have them have their voices heard in that district. They just happened to choose someone who wasn’t a minority,” Moran said.
Lawrence Rep. Frank Moran, who was first elected in 2012, credited redistricting with him sitting where he does now as a member of House leadership. “There’s no way that a person of color like me could have been elected were it not for redistricting,” Moran said. ♦