fb-pixel Skip to main content

Acting Mayor Janey quietly shopping plan to change Boston voting precincts

Proposal wouldn’t go into effect until after mayoral election

People waited in line to cast their ballots at Boston City Hall in 2020.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

After decades of political neglect, Acting Mayor Kim Janey and Boston elections officials are quietly shopping a plan to redraw some of the city’s voting precincts, an effort that advocates hope will equalize disparate wait times at the polls.

The city’s plan — which is subject to change and would not go into effect before this fall’s mayoral election — would add more than a dozen precincts in some of Boston’s fastest-growing neighborhoods, according to a draft of the proposal obtained by the Globe and confirmed by city officials..

Boston’s arcane maps have left some voters, particularly in densely packed neighborhoods, waiting in long lines at the polls while their neighbors enjoy a speedier process, and advocates say those burdens fall all too often on communities of color. In one dense Chinatown precinct, for example, more than 7,000 voters must share one polling place; in a precinct near Brookline, that number is under 500.

A diverse array of civic engagement groups has long been pushing for the city to equalize the precinct sizes. But bureaucratic inertia and the tug of power between city and state have left the same lines in place for decades even as the face of Boston has changed dramatically. Voting precincts typically form the building blocks for political districts, meaning efforts to change the lines can be not just a logistical challenge but a political morass.

Advertisement



Now, city elections officials want to add polling places in some of the densest neighborhoods. The changes would not affect the entire city’s maps but rather target the most crowded voting precincts.

Janey and other city officials pitched the plan to advocates at a mid-August meeting, according to five attendees, and intend to hold a public meeting on the proposal in the coming weeks. Janey’s office reached out to redistricting leaders at the State House and will brief them on the precinct plans at a meeting in September, said state Representative Mike Moran, the Brighton Democrat co-leading redistricting efforts.

Advertisement



City officials did not publicly release the plan, nor have they briefed all members of the City Council about it, but they confirmed details of the proposal this week after the Globe obtained a draft of it.

The Board of Election Commissioners is expected to vote on the plan in early October, a city spokesperson said, adding that the plan does not require the approval of the City Council or the state.

“We can’t have fair access to the right to vote if one of our precincts has more than 7,000 registered voters, and another has less than 600,” Janey said in a statement to the Globe. “I look forward to public discussions of a new voting precinct plan that reflects our population growth, promotes voter access no matter where residents live, and helps us work towards a more equitable Boston.”

Advocates praised the city for taking up an issue that’s long been allowed to languish. But some said the proposal does not go far enough to solve the city’s problems. And others pointed to the timing — weeks before a hotly contested mayoral election in which Janey and several city councilors are candidates — as evidence that she’s seeking last-minute political points, especially given that the precinct sizes have been a known problem for years. Several of Janey’s rivals have pushed for changes to Boston precincts in the past.

Advertisement



Chinese Progressive Association executive director Karen Chen, who attended the August meeting with Janey, lauded the city for a “thoughtful” proposal and a commitment to increasing voter access.

After waiting so long for the precincts to change, she said, “something should just happen.”

“I don’t think we need to wait until it’s perfect,” she said.

Civic engagement groups such as Common Cause Massachusetts and MassVOTE, as well as the Chinese Progressive Association, have been pushing for more than a decade for the city to equalize precinct sizes.

Most Massachusetts cities and towns must reexamine and roughly equalize their precinct lines every 10 years, on the same timeline as the decennial census. But Boston has been exempt from that state law for a century, a fluke of history that has given city officials legal cover to ignore the gaping disparities in the current maps.

The issue has the attention of Beacon Hill. Nearly a decade ago, in a 2012 report, state legislative leaders took issue with Boston’s unchanged precinct lines, warning that they made it difficult for mapmakers to ensure equal voting access while following other redistricting restrictions.

In most of the rest of the state, precincts cannot exceed 4,000 residents. But Boston’s largest voting precincts, in Chinatown and the Seaport, contain more than 7,000 registered voters. Others number under 1,000, and a voting district serving the Boston Harbor Islands has been home to just one.

The city’s draft plan aims to keep precincts no larger than about 2,000 registered voters each.

Advertisement



It targets parts of downtown, including Chinatown, the North End, and the South End, as well as Charlestown and the Seaport. It would add nine precincts in crowded Ward 3, splitting up a Chinatown precinct that has more than 7,000 registered voters. It would also strip away one Roxbury precinct in Ward 8, where some precincts currently tally under 1,000 registered voters.

City officials do not intend to change the city’s wards — divisions that have given rise over the years to political communities that are loath to be divided.

Advocates who have been pushing new precinct boundaries for years celebrated that the long passed-over issue is getting some attention. Boston League of Women Voters president Kerry Costello, who attended the meeting with Janey, said it was “refreshing” to see how much effort the city had put into the plan.

“We’ve been laboring in these fields for a long time so it’s nice to see the harvest might finally come in,” Costello said. New Boston precincts would be “one of the big accomplishments of the decade” for her organization, she said.

Still, some advocates said the current proposal leaves something major to be desired: future-proofing.

The draft plan would modernize the city’s current voting maps, but it would not require the city to equalize precincts on a regular basis in the future, meeting attendees said. If the city faces no requirement to adjust precincts regularly, fast-growing neighborhoods will quickly crowd the new precincts, too, creating the same issues. That would mean that in just a few years, it will once again fall to outside advocates to demand the city make changes.

Advertisement



One voting rights advocate who didn’t want to be quoted by name for fear of antagonizing city officials likened the new proposed maps to a tiny dam struggling to contain a massive river: It will hold, but only for so long.

Without a long-term commitment, the advocate said, the plan feels more like a “political stunt” than a sincere effort at lasting reform.

“I do think it’s important that if the city is taking a look at this right now, that they think about change in a sustainable and long-term sense that doesn’t just address inequity as it is today but that could prevent inequity as it could occur down the road,” said Common Cause Massachusetts executive director Geoff Foster who attended the Janey meeting this month remotely.

The timing of the effort has not escaped notice, nor has the group of people invited to weigh in so far.

City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Michelle Wu, two of Janey’s rivals in the mayoral race, have taken an interest in the issue of Boston precincts, pushing through 2019 a city ordinance 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.

But both said Janey’s administration has not reached out to them about the latest plan.

“The timing of this push is surprising and doesn’t make sense, frankly,” Wu told the Globe. She said that since the city did not take up the proposal sooner, it should wait until after the state’s ongoing redistricting process has concluded — and that any conversations on the issue should bring more people to the table. “If we’re truly talking about reprecincting, it would need to be a citywide conversation and not a stopgap measure.”

A city spokesperson said that the elections department has been working with city councilors for more than two years to identify necessary changes to precincts, and that the council will be “further engaged” before the elections board votes on the plan.


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.