Mirroring the nation as a whole, Massachusetts saw its population grow by 7.4 percent over the last decade, as communities of color drove an increase of nearly half a million people, data released Thursday by the US Census Bureau show.
The new figures, which tally more than 7 million residents in the state for the first time, distinguish Massachusetts as the fastest-growing in New England and leave it well-positioned to tap the federal funding that flows based on population counts.
The numbers also fire the starting gun on the challenging, accelerated process of redrawing the state’s political maps. Massachusetts lawmakers must now parse the complicated data set on a shortened timeline, rebalancing the congressional and legislative districts that have shrunk too much with those that have swelled too large. All the while, they must ensure fair representation for the communities of color who drove the population growth, and manage the whims of their colleagues, who will fight for district boundaries that would preserve their own advantages.
Eastern Massachusetts was behind much of the state’s population growth, with Boston adding 58,000 people between 2010 and 2020, and Cambridge adding 13,000. Quincy, Lynn, and Brockton also saw population growth, as did Worcester in Central Massachusetts. By contrast, the population declined in parts of Western Massachusetts.
Those shifts come as the state lost 236,000 non-Hispanic white residents over the last decade, lowering their share of the population from 76 percent to 68 percent. Meanwhile, Massachusetts residents identifying as Hispanic or Latino grew from 10 percent to 13 percent of the population.
The Massachusetts data are part of the trend of a diversifying nation, where cities are growing as rural areas shrink, and where the non-Hispanic white population is now 58 percent, having dropped in number for the first time in American history.
Secretary of State William F. Galvin called the high population tally “extremely good news for Massachusetts.”
“It’s very gratifying that some of the communities that most need federal aid . . . are going to get it because they have some populations that will justify it,” he said Thursday evening outside the State House. That Massachusetts is growing is a testament to its draw as a center for jobs and commerce, he said, adding that the increased population was driven by immigration from other nations as well as domestic moves.
Massachusetts’ shifting population also means that the state lawmakers tasked with crafting new political maps have their work cut out for them, Galvin said.
“I certainly don’t minimize the challenges faced by the Legislature — and it’s going to be their challenge,” he said.
The detailed local data come after months of COVID-19-related delays, and formally begin the once-in-a-decade process of redistricting, providing the building blocks to redraw 429 House districts in 44 states and 7,383 state legislative districts across the United States.
Massachusetts mapmakers will now chart the state’s nine congressional districts and 200 legislative seats. Their primary task is to equalize populations among political districts that have fallen out of balance over the last 10 years. But they will also look to the state’s increasing diversity to draw more so-called majority-minority districts, where people of color make up more than half the population, though not necessarily more than half of eligible voters.
Those seats are intended to empower communities of color to elect the candidate of their choice, but history shows that even in majority-minority districts, white candidates often prevail. Most of the new majority-minority seats added in Massachusetts’ historic 2011 redistricting cycle are held by white lawmakers today. In part, politicians and advocates say, that’s due to historic barriers facing candidates of color, especially as they seek to compete in a state where political outsiders are appraised skeptically and political insiders remain overwhelmingly white.
Advocates in Massachusetts, who have banded together as the Drawing Democracy Coalition, said they plan to propose a “unity map” that keeps communities together and ensures equitable representation for people of color and low-income communities in Massachusetts.
“Redistricting is a once-in-a-decade opportunity to better ensure authentic representation and open new opportunities for building power for BIPOC, immigrant and low-income communities,” the coalition, which includes MassVOTE, the Massachusetts Voter Table, and the ACLU of Massachusetts, said in a statement.
The group pledged to advocate for districts in which people of color make up “a significant share of eligible voters.”
State officials cautioned that the federal data arrived in a complicated format and may take days to parse fully. Census officials intend to release the same numbers in a more accessible format in September. To ensure they base districts on the official counts, state lawmakers plan to check the September data set against Thursday’s batch.
Typically, states would have received the data this spring; this year, they’ll face a tighter turnaround for drawing new political maps. Since state representatives must live in their districts for a year before the November 2022 election, mapmakers are aiming to finalize the lines by this November.
Nationally, for both parties, there are ulterior motives during the redistricting process: creating maps that maximize their own political power.
Republicans need just five seats to take control of the US House in the 2022 elections — a margin that could potentially be covered through artful redistricting. As they did after the 2010 Census, Republicans will hold greater sway in the redistricting process.
“Redistricting really is the ballgame this cycle in the House,” said David Wasserman, an analyst for congressional races at the Cook Political Report. “Even tiny changes to district lines could have huge implications that tip the balance of power in the House.”
The national process may prove a partisan slugfest followed by years of litigation. But in Massachusetts, where Democrats hold every congressional district and super majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, the tension will be in drawing fair districts that reflect population shifts and provide meaningful representation for communities of color while incumbents fight for lines advantageous to them.
In the 2011 redistricting cycle, Massachusetts was one of just a handful of states whose new political maps did not draw a lawsuit.
Top of mind for mapmakers will be recalibrating districts whose populations, roughly equal in 2010, are now far out of balance. Increases in the Eastern part of the state and drops in Franklin County and Berkshire County mean some congressional and legislative districts in Western Massachusetts will need to stretch further east to encompass the right number of people.
Massachusetts’ population growth allowed it to retain all nine congressional seats. In past cycles, lagging population growth has cost Massachusetts influence in Congress.
Despite the growth, experts caution that people of color were likely undercounted in the census, owing to distrust in government and former president Donald Trump’s failed push for a citizenship question. That effect may prove particularly strong in immigrant communities like Chelsea, where the census self-response rate lagged the state’s rate earlier this year, and where local officials say population undercounts already leave the city deprived of funding and resources to which it is entitled.
Pointing to the efforts of state and local officials, Galvin, the 2020 Census liaison for Massachusetts, said he was not worried about a significant undercount in places like Chelsea.
“I believe these numbers,” he said.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.