A seemingly technical change in how the state will redraw its political boundaries has ignited a fiery intraparty battle on Beacon Hill, where the state’s top election official is accusing legislative leaders of orchestrating a “power grab” amid the once-in-a-decade process.
The fast-moving fight has upended what’s typically a staid redistricting exercise, in which the Legislature, using the latest census data, reworks Massachusetts’ political map. The secretary of state, a Democrat, is charging that Democrats atop the House are seeking more control in redrawing boundaries to make it harder for other candidates to mount primary challenges against them.
In past years, local officials in Massachusetts cities and towns have redrawn their own precincts and wards, and those boundaries are then used as building blocks for legislators as they construct new legislative and congressional districts.
This year, citing time pressure due to delays in releasing census data, House lawmakers moved to flip the process, passing a bill Thursday that would allow them to draw the districts first, into which local officials would then fit precincts. The proposal passed, 131-29, three days after it emerged for a hearing. It now moves to the Senate.
The proposal’s emergence this week immediately sparked controversy, pitting municipal officials, who oppose the measure, against voting rights advocates who support it. The most heated opposition has come from Secretary of State William F. Galvin, a Brighton Democrat who this week charged that lawmakers are pushing the change for cynical political reasons.
“This is a power grab,” Galvin said. “If this is evidence of the transparency that they intend to engage in for this process, then we’re in bigger trouble.”
Lawmakers deny that, and voting rights advocates and other experts say that other states already use other measures instead of local precincts to build new districts.
“In general, states go first, and locals follow up” in drawing districts, said Wendy Underhill, director of the Elections and Redistricting Program at the National Conference of State Legislatures, which tracks state legislation nationwide. Massachusetts “would be moving from the minority position to the common position.”
But the criticism is notable for its intraparty target: Elsewhere in the country, redistricting frequently features fights between Democrats and Republicans, with the minority party attacking efforts to redraw boundaries favorable to the party in power.
“This is about primary opponents,” Galvin said, adding he sees no other “good reason” why lawmakers are pushing it. “It’s not about the Congress. It’s not about the [state] Senate. It’s about the House. And it’s about the cities where [state representatives] may feel uncomfortable where there are changes in their communities.
“The people’s districts will define whether their prospects are better or worse,” he added. “They like comfortable districts.”
House lawmakers dispute Galvin’s charges, and the dueling positions have revealed a schism in Boston’s famously parochial political scene. State Representative Michael J. Moran, the bill’s sponsor and the House chairman on the special committee leading the redistricting effort, is, like Galvin, a Democrat from Brighton — a Boston neighborhood whose other state representative, Kevin G. Honan, is a 34-year incumbent who successfully fended of a primary challenge last year.
“Not based in any fact whatsoever,” Moran said of Galvin’s criticisms, saying the intent is to avoid missing a June 15 deadline for cities and towns to redraw their boundaries. Census data that Massachusetts officials need to remake districts may not be released until the end of September, six months later than usual.
Moran said he’s specifically trying to protect the Legislature from potential lawsuits, should the state miss any statutory deadlines in what can already be a litigious process.
“Our credibility on this issue is very good,” Moran said. “Statements like [Galvin’s] really are just made for provocative reasons. We’re statutorily given that control. I can tell you who doesn’t have authority to do this.”
Lawmakers say they face other pressures: By law, representatives must live in the new districts a year before their election. Should the legislative redrawing process drag out beyond November, lawmakers said, it risks incumbents or candidates suddenly finding themselves living outside the district they once called home.
“There would be nothing worse in my mind for candidates who are planning on running . . . to discover that suddenly they no longer live in the district they are planning on running in,” said state Representative Alice H. Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat, who defended the change. She said the legislation was a “reasonable” response to the data delay and one that would only affect this redistricting cycle.
Nationally, the redistricting process can set off partisan warfare over gerrymandering. Republicans in Georgia and Ohio, for example, are eyeing ways this year to redraw districts in ways that can bolster their party’s electoral prospects for the next 10 years. In 2018, Democrats in New Jersey engineered, and then reconsidered, an effort to give themselves more power in redistricting.
In Massachusetts, the rancor rarely reaches such heights, given that the Democrats’ dominance here is not tied to geography alone. They boast super-majorities in the Legislature and have held every seat in the congressional delegation for decades.
But the new dispute has created other divisions. Municipal officials have decried the move, arguing it will sow “disarray” in towns split between multiple districts, and potentially force local officials to cut up precincts even further, to the point some voters would have to navigate different polling places for municipal and state elections.
“This is why cities and towns must go first in the process,” Geoffrey C. Beckwith, the executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, wrote in a letter to lawmakers.
House Republicans also spoke out against the bill Thursday, including Representative Shawn Dooley, a Norfolk Republican and former town clerk, who said the change “does not make sense.” (All but one of of the chamber’s 30 Republicans voted against it.)
Several voting rights advocates see it differently. Drawing districts before precincts are solidified would allow lawmakers to focus “on creating the most equitable and inclusive districts,” said Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE.
“With populations of Black Indigenous people of color rising in Boston and gateway cities, getting the redistricting process done right is of paramount importance,” Crawford said.
Beth Huang, who heads the Massachusetts Voter Table, a civic engagement organization, said advocates have long believed that redistricting should happen before new precinct lines are drawn. The delay in census data offers an opportunity to make a swap that she hopes would become permanent.
She and other advocates have been seeking this change for months, Huang said, because it will help ensure lawmakers meet their November deadline for drawing their own districts, and ease the timeline for local officials who also must gear up for municipal elections.
Drawing larger districts and then subdividing them up into smaller, similar-sized voting precincts is easier than the traditional approach of assembling smaller building blocks into legislative and congressional districts, Huang said.
“Fitting precincts inside of districts will make redistricting — respecting the Voting Rights Act considerations — more doable in the long term,” she said. The benefits of changing the system “so far outweigh” the advantages of the status quo, she said.
Galvin has argued the change would strip power from local officials. But Avi Green, a former executive director of MassVOTE, said the bill will “not in any way” restrict cities and towns’ abilities to create logical precincts “because, of course, precincts easily can and should drop right into the spaces so that each state representative district has precincts that fill it up.”