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EDITORIAL

A lemon of a census could be election reform lemonade

A tweak to the way Massachusetts does redistricting can bring new faces to Beacon Hill.

A Boston Public Library security guard sits at the entrance to a polling station at the library's main branch on Nov. 3, 2020.
A Boston Public Library security guard sits at the entrance to a polling station at the library's main branch on Nov. 3, 2020.Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

For months, Massachusetts lawmakers have known that the once-a-decade ritual of redistricting would be more fraught than usual this time around — a function of a six-month delay in getting accurate census numbers (thanks to the pandemic and the Trump administration’s dragged-out effort to exclude some immigrants from the count).

But this can also be the year to turn a lemon of a census into electoral reform lemonade.

The redistricting process is never easy, especially in a state like Massachusetts that gives lawmakers the final say over the drawing of their own districts. This year, the tugging and pulling got even more complicated in a battle over what level of government gets to draw its boundaries first — pitting House lawmakers against local officials and their champion in the fight, Secretary of State William F. Galvin.

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Galvin has made an impassioned plea for the status quo that requires cities and towns to draw up their precincts as a prelude to legislative redistricting. Those small precincts, sometimes just a few hundred people, traditionally were the building blocks from which state lawmakers constructed districts. Allowing municipalities to draw the precincts first, instead of letting the Legislature start with a blank slate, provided a modest check on lawmakers’ power.

Turns out, however, that Massachusetts is an outlier in that regard — and this is as good a time as any to join most of the rest of the nation and reverse that order.

While the fight may seem an arcane only-on-Beacon Hill brouhaha — and indeed, for many voters, it will make exactly zero difference which side prevails — this long-overdue change has the potential to make running for office a little more open and accessible to communities of color and those long underrepresented in the Legislature. That’s because starting with a blank slate makes it easier to create districts that fulfill the objectives of fair representation under the Voting Rights Act.

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“The norm is that the legislature goes first and local election officials then work with the lines drawn for congressional and legislative districts,” explained Wendy Underhill, director of the elections and redistricting program at the National Conference of State Legislatures. In fact, she points to at least eight states that expressly prohibit local officials from changing precinct lines for varying periods of time before lawmakers redraw the broader boundaries.

After census officials announced last February that final census numbers, usually available by March 31, wouldn’t be delivered until Sept. 30, redistricting calendars across the country have been thrown into turmoil as one after another state blows by deadlines.

So last week, the House voted to scrap the current June 15 deadline by which cities and towns had to redraw their local precincts and instead allow special legislative committees in the House and Senate to go first and redraw boundaries for legislative districts and for Congress. Then they’d hand off the map to cities and towns, which would then have 30 days to draw up new precincts, with the entire process set to be completed by Dec. 15.

Galvin, in an interview, predicted the new process would “cause electoral chaos” and was largely intended as “an incumbent protection act.”

The Massachusetts Municipal Association was none too happy either, predicting in a letter to lawmakers a “set of cascading complications for voters, such as different polling places and different boundaries for municipal and state elections.”

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But an overwhelming majority of states have for decades done exactly what the House bill is prescribing.

That was a fact not lost on the Senate Elections Committee chair, Barry Finegold.

“Somebody has to go first,” Finegold said in an interview, adding that the constitutional requirement that state representatives live in their district for one year before they are elected was rightfully causing some concern in that branch. The Senate has yet to vote on the House-approved bill.

Galvin isn’t wrong about a possible advantage for incumbents. After all, lawmakers get to draw those districts unfettered by local officials. But the best way to avoid that would be to follow the lead of states that have created an independent commission — removing elected officials from the process altogether.

It’s also true that drawing the districts sooner creates some advantages for would-be challengers. As Avi Green, a board member of Common Cause and a proponent of the House bill, pointed out, “It takes time for a challenger to put together a race. . . . In order to bring an incumbent to account, it’s better to have a longer time frame.”

And, Green notes, it’s difficult and time-consuming to craft districts that will also comply with the Voting Rights Act. “In other words, you don’t want to ‘pack ’em’ or ‘crack ‘em’ ” — two well-known ways of diluting minority representation, either by “packing” too many minority voters into a single district or “cracking” the minority vote by spreading it out over many districts.

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While congressional district boundaries will probably change — now the subject of public hearings by the Legislature’s redistricting committees — the fact that Massachusetts will retain its nine seats in the US House makes that somewhat less contentious.

But transitions are never easy — and local officials are justifiably concerned about how this plays out on the ground. Voters simply want to know where they will be voting — and that may require a good old-fashioned information campaign. But they also want to know for whom they can vote in 2022 — and the sooner they do, the better.


Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.