Barely a mile offshore but within Boston city limits, Thompson Island has exactly one registered voter. And come election time, she has the voting precinct to herself. At the other end of the city near the Brookline border, one polling place serves just 478 registered voters.
But in Chinatown, more than 7,000 voters must share a single polling place, shuffling through lengthy lines along Oak Street West on Election Day to cast their ballots in the glossy-floored gymnasium of the Wang YMCA.
Even as Boston’s population has swelled and shifted, the city hasn’t overhauled its voting precincts in decades. The result: long lines for some, a speedy process for others. And all too often, advocates say, the voters waiting the longest are people of color.
City officials want to redraw some of the lines this year. But at best, the proposal under consideration would amount to a one-time addition of new polling places in some of the city’s most crowded precincts, far short of a full-blown overhaul of the map. Without a commitment to redraw the lines in the future, voting rights advocates fear the same crowding problems would recur as the city continues to change.
“It is unacceptable that there are some precincts that have 6,300 voters and then some that have 663 voters,” said Beth Huang, who heads the Massachusetts Voter Table, an advocacy group. And the consequences of inaction are borne disproportionately, though not exclusively, by voters of color living in high-density areas or public housing, advocates said.
“The concerns of voters of color and immigrant voters have always been at the bottom of the to-do list,” Huang said. “A low-income voter of color having to get out of line to go to their hourly job while white-collar workers are able to vote anytime in their precincts that have 10 times fewer registered voters is a major problem.”
In nearly every Massachusetts town and city, state law dictates that local leaders must reexamine voting precinct lines with new census data every 10 years. Their task is to adjust the boundaries where necessary to ensure roughly equal populations — and equal access to the ballot box.
But a century-old exemption in state law allows Boston to skip that process, forcing residents of the city’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, many of them people of color, to crowd into a single polling place while some of their peers in wealthy neighborhoods enjoy shorter waits.
The disparities are “a reflection of how much Boston has changed in the past 100 years,” said Alex Psilakis, policy and communications manager of the nonprofit engagement organization MassVOTE.
“It was a much whiter, Irish, Italian city 100 years ago,” he said. “This inability to redraw the precincts is really an inability to recognize how Boston has changed. Because proportionally, the non-white, lower-income individuals are paying a greater price.”
This year, Boston election officials are again pushing to slice up the most crowded precincts, which they believe would ease lines for voters; all six major mayoral candidates have said they support making changes. But bureaucratic stagnation, and the city-state tug of power, has stymied those efforts many times before.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin acknowledged there have sometimes been long lines in city elections, but said they are rare. He pointed to other methods for shortening wait times: larger polling places, voting by mail, and early voting.
Still, he acknowledged, the “best solution” would be for city officials to redraw the boundaries, a step he said they could take without state input.
The reason new maps haven’t been adopted yet? “Bureaucratic inertia,” Galvin said.
In most of Massachusetts, precincts cannot include more than 4,000 residents. In Boston, several contain more than 4,000 registered voters; one precinct in Chinatown has 12,491 residents.
As of 2020, the average Boston precinct holds just under 1,700 registered voters. But the sizes vary wildly across neighborhoods, sometimes along racial and ethnic lines.
There are several larger-than-average precincts in Mattapan, Dorchester, and Hyde Park, home to many of the city’s Black neighborhoods. And the population of registered voters is growing quickly in East Boston and Charlestown, where many precinct voting ranks are already larger than the city average and many residents are people of color. Advocates fear that lines there will only get longer as the population grows.
The one precinct in the Seaport, where the population is wealthier and more residents are white, had 7,290 registered voters last year — more than four times the city average — because the city’s maps have not kept up with the neighborhood’s population growth.
By contrast, in other city neighborhoods, the number of registered voters has dwindled over the past few years, but the dedicated polling place has remained, including several in Back Bay.
For advocates, one area of great concern is Chinatown, where Ward 3, Precinct 8 is among the city’s most populous.
Lines were already long there in the high-turnout general election of 2008, when there were 3,909 registered voters.
But as the neighborhood population ballooned — the number of registered voters has nearly doubled since 2008 — the precinct boundaries haven’t changed. Chinatown voters have been shifted 500 feet down the street, to the sprawling YMCA gymnasium, but they’re still zoned into one polling place.
Combined with residents’ hourly jobs and limited English proficiency, those lines threaten their voting access, advocates say.
“It’s already difficult for limited English speakers to exercise their voting rights . . . and it often takes them longer to figure out the ballot and so on,” said Lydia Lowe, a veteran activist and board member of Chinese Progressive Political Action.
During the 2008 election, Lowe recalled, she met a restaurant worker who had waited several hours to vote, only to have to leave for his shift before he’d had the chance. By the time his shift was over, the polls had closed.
Lowe said the antiquated boundaries don’t seem so much a deliberate effort to disenfranchise voters of color as a failure to contend with the city’s new reality — a subtler way of dismissing the needs of Chinatown’s communities that’s no less corrosive.
“The fact that we couldn’t get attention to it? That’s related to a history of racism and political invisibility,” she said. “Boston is also just a real old, stuck-in-the-mud kind of city. They’ve always done it this way; it’ll always be this way.”
Previous efforts to rework the lines have had minimal success. City election officials said their records show more robust initiatives to examine precinct lines in the 1940s and subsequent decades, but those efforts trailed off later in the century.
Advocates are hopeful that this year will be different, given city officials’ interest in changing the maps. But even with that support, a comprehensive overhaul is all but off the table; it’s especially unlikely ahead of the mayoral race this fall. City election officials are instead targeting the most crowded precincts, places where they’ve received most complaints from voters in recent elections.
Eneida Tavares, Boston’s elections commissioner, said changing just a few precincts at a time would minimize chaos. She expects to submit a plan to the City Council in the next few months that would add new polling places in some of Boston’s densest areas. But it remains to be seen if the council will act.
For some advocates, that proposal is a Band-Aid over a gaping wound. If Boston is not forced onto a regular timetable for redrawing the lines, the problems will only continue to fester, they said.
“What will other neighborhoods look like 10, 20, or 30 years from now? Which neighborhood is next to be developed? Which will face absurdly long lines at the polls?” questioned Cheryl Clyburn Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE. “If Boston gets in line with the rest of the state and conducts reprecincting every 10 years, then none of them will be subjected to this type of voter suppression. . . . Otherwise, Boston voters — especially Black and brown, low-income, and immigrant voters — will continue to face yet another unjust barrier to the ballot box.”
All six major candidates for Boston mayor said at a forum last week that they’re in favor of changing the precinct lines. City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, who are both running for mayor, have pushed the issue through the City Council, sending proposed precinct changes to the State House for approval in an effort that stalled out. Campbell and Wu also got a city ordinance passed in 2019 that requires Boston officials to review precincts every five years, although it does not require them to be redrawn so that they are equal sizes.
“Boston is very much tied to our traditions and one big reason why we haven’t reprecincted in so many decades, unlike other municipalities in the state, is that there’s some familiarity and fondness to which neighborhoods are in which wards and precincts,” Wu said. “This is a larger issue. But it directly impacts the civic participation and the barriers to participation that then feed into representation at all levels.”