A coalition of advocacy groups is proposing sweeping changes to Massachusetts’ political landscape, offering a map that would significantly increase the number of state legislative districts populated mostly by people of color. The proposal comes as state lawmakers push through the complicated and legally fraught once-in-a-decade redistricting process this fall on an accelerated timeline.
The Drawing Democracy Coalition — which includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, MassVOTE, and the Massachusetts Voter Table, among other groups — on Tuesday unveiled its proposal for the state House and Senate. It would more than double the number of majority-minority seats in the state Senate and carve out several entirely new legislative districts, steps advocates say will empower the state’s communities of color to build political influence on Beacon Hill, where state lawmakers remain far whiter than the state population. People of color drove Massachusetts’ population growth over the last decade as the state’s white population declined, census data released this year showed; those shifting demographics must be reflected in the next decade’s political maps.
The new districts “will help ensure that Black and brown, low-income, immigrant communities may receive fair, just, and accessible representation on Beacon Hill,” said Cheryl Crawford, executive director of MassVOTE.
In some regions, the advocates’ maps would pit incumbent lawmakers against one another, setting up potentially contentious election fights should the state’s official mapmakers adopt the suggested lines.
The state lawmakers leading the redistricting process, Democrats Senator William Brownsberger and Representative Michael Moran, have been meeting with the advocacy groups and community leaders, as well as their colleagues in the state House and Senate. Both said they’d examine the proposal.
Brownsberger said he was grateful to the coalition “for pulling together so many voices that it’s important for us to hear from,” and said lawmakers have been “carefully considering” advocates’ input as they developed the new maps.
“They’re gonna see their fingerprints on the end product,” said Moran, who said he has been speaking regularly with the advocates and appreciates their efforts.
Since candidates must live in their districts for a calendar year before competing in the November 2022 general election, legislators intend to finalize the maps by early November. Initial drafts could be released in the next few weeks.
Though Massachusetts’ 2011 redistricting process was widely praised — it was the rare state that did not draw a single lawsuit over its new maps — the state has a ugly history of marginalizing people of color through its political maps. Federal judges struck down parts of the state’s 2001 map after finding the state had discriminated against people of color by packing them into one Boston district, drawing lines that, they wrote, “sacrificed racial fairness . . . on the altar of incumbency protection.”
Now, as new census data shows that people of color are driving Massachusetts’ population growth, State House mapmakers have made clear that they will prioritize drawing districts where communities of color can elect their candidates of choice.
The question is how and where the state’s new demographic reality will be reflected in its political maps, and how legislative leaders will balance better representation with the perennial challenges of redistricting: ensuring roughly equal population in an ever-changing state, fielding the concerns of their incumbent colleagues who hope the new lines will preserve their own electoral advantages, and fending off any number of potential legal challenges.
Currently, men and white people are overrepresented on Beacon Hill by dozens of legislative seats compared with population.
The advocates’ map would increase from three to seven the number of state Senate districts populated mostly by people of color. In 2011, the last time the state redrew its political boundaries, that number ticked up from two to three. There are 40 Senate districts in total.
That would include the addition of a majority-Black state Senate district in Boston, stretching from Hyde Park up through parts of Mattapan, Roslindale, and Dorchester. Advocates have pushed for the state to create a district where Black voters make up the largest voting group and can come together to elect the candidate of their choice — likely a Black candidate — to ensure the needs of Black residents are being adequately addressed on Beacon Hill.
A number of sitting state senators won’t seek reelection next year, easing the process of redrawing the lines for the chamber’s districts; mapmakers have to balance shifting populations with the demands of their colleagues who seek to preserve their own electoral advantages.
In the map released Tuesday, advocates also propose creating a Brockton-centered district including Randolph, Avon, and Stoughton, where people of color outnumber white residents, with 45 percent of the population being Black. But white voters would comprise the largest voting bloc, just over half of the district’s eligible voters, according to data from the advocacy groups.
It would also scuttle boundaries along the New Hampshire border, splitting a state Senate district that currently includes both Andover and Lawrence and instead grouping Lawrence with Methuen and Dracut, which have more similar demographics.
History shows that adding new majority-minority districts does not always lead to the election of candidates of color. In 2011, Massachusetts mapmakers drew 12 new majority-minority seats; today, white lawmakers hold most of them. In part, that’s because turnout patterns and demographic trends can make white voting blocs decisive even in districts where white people are a minority.
For example, Hispanic residents could make up most of the population in an immigrant community but still not currently comprise the majority of eligible voters in the surrounding district since some are younger than 18 and others are not citizens.
Experts and advocates also point to the historical barriers facing candidates of color in a state where political outsiders are viewed with deep skepticism and political insiders are overwhelmingly white.
On the House side, the advocates’ map would increase the number of majority-minority districts from the current 20 to 29 in total. There are 160 House districts.
“They’ve set the bar” by drawing 29 such districts, Moran said. “Our goal is to at least meet that.”
That includes the creation of two entirely new districts, one based in Chelsea and one based in Revere, that advocates say would empower those cities’ communities of color to elect candidates of their choice. Neither district, as drawn by the advocacy groups, currently houses an incumbent state representative, meaning political newcomers could have a better shot at winning the seats.
“We need these district lines to change,” said Gladys Vega, who heads the Chelsea nonprofit La Colaborativa. She said the hard-hit city didn’t get the government aid it needed — and “it wasn’t because they didn’t see the numbers. It’s because we didn’t have very strong people in certain times, advocating for the necessary resources.”
Advocates said their map pits sitting state representatives against one another in just two places: Democrats Paul Mark and Smitty Pignatelli in Western Massachusetts, and Republican Donald Wong and Democrat Jessica Giannino in a district that includes parts of Revere and Saugus.
The coalition expects to release proposed congressional maps at a later date.
Emma Platoff can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.