BOSTON (AP) — A bill approved by the Massachusetts House would upend the process of drawing local precinct lines, setting off a political squabble that pits Democratic lawmakers against the Democratic secretary of state and local city and town leaders.
Due to the pandemic, the U.S. Census Bureau is releasing redistricting data six months later than usual, giving cities and towns less time than in previous years to update their precincts.
Under current state law, after every once-in-a-decade U.S. census, cities and towns update their precinct lines first. State lawmakers then use those newly drawn municipal precincts as the building blocks for the state’s process of drawing new state House, state Senate and congressional districts.
The bill approved Thursday by House lawmakers on a 131-29 vote, would reverse the process to let state lawmakers redraw district lines first. Local officials would then have to draw precincts to fit those districts.
Supporters of the bill, including its sponsor, Democratic state Rep. Michael Moran, argue the change is needed because delays in receiving final census data from the federal government from the 2020 census won’t leave enough time for the process to play out as it has in the past. Moran is also House chairman on the special committee leading the redistricting effort.
The Census Bureau plans to release redistricting data by Sept. 30 rather than March 31. Some information could be released in August.
Democratic Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin, who oversees the census in Massachusetts, described the move as a power grab by lawmakers.
“The bill is about completing undoing the process that has worked for many decades and taking away the authority of cities and towns to draw their own precincts and giving it to the Legislature,” Galvin said Friday.
Galvin also pushed back against the argument that the change is needed because of a compressed time frame.
“There is plenty of time. My office has already been in touch with cities and towns. We have been having webinars. They are fully prepared when the numbers come out, most likely in August,” he said.
A statewide group representing cities and towns sides with Galvin and also opposes the bill.
Local communities are in the best position to take into account neighborhoods and racial and ethnic communities of interest when they draw precincts lines, according to Geoff Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
Beckwith said municipalities also must hold at least one local public hearing as part of the process, ensuring local 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 said in a written statement.
A coalition of progressive advocacy groups has backed the proposal, arguing that time is running out to redraw political lines.
“The current timeline gives municipalities an unrealistically short time period in which to redraw precinct lines,” Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts said in a written statement. He described the bill as “a modest, common sense change that will make both redistricting and reprecincting better for voters and local officials.”
The bill would also give the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Redistricting the flexibility to increase political power in communities of color and immigrant communities, Foster said, adding it would “empower voters to know their electoral districts as soon as possible and empower municipalities by providing adequate time to draw precincts."
The bill now heads to the Massachusetts Senate.