During the last redistricting process in Massachusetts, the state Legislature reconfigured the Seventh Congressional District to create the “strongest majority-minority congressional district in the state’s history,” as lawmakers called it at the time.
To the Seventh Congressional District, they added primarily Black areas (Randolph and a third of Milton) while removing mostly white areas, such as Boston’s North End. Among other redistricting moves, lawmakers also redrew the Hampden state Senate district in Western Massachusetts to create what became the third majority-minority district in the Senate.
In both of those districts, it took years after redistricting for a candidate of color to actually get elected to the seat: Ayanna Pressley did it in 2018 when she won the Seventh District, becoming the first Black congresswoman from Massachusetts; and Adam Gomez became the first Afro-Latino state Senator when he was elected to represent the Hampden district on Beacon Hill just last year.
This long-term dynamic illustrates one of the many challenges faced by legislators who embarked on this year’s redistricting process based on the population growth reflected in the 2020 Census that showed an increasingly diverse Massachusetts. Making sure Beacon Hill represents the demographics of the state is an important priority, but how exactly to do that involves some thorny judgment calls. In redrawing district boundaries, lawmakers first had to determine whether to go for a smaller number of safe districts, where a person of color will be heavily favored — or a larger number of districts that may not yield immediate results but are likely, over the course of the next decade, to become pick-up opportunities. And of course, they had to do so while minding legal obligations such as those outlined in the Voting Rights Act and in redistricting law.
The House chose the more long-term approach. Lawmakers there proposed a map of new House districts that would create 13 new majority-minority districts, bringing the total to 33 (up from the existing 20). That number even goes above and beyond what voting rights advocates had proposed.
“There is not an area on this map where you could draw 50 percent of any population, whether it be a combination of Black, Hispanic, and Asian or just Black and Hispanic, and we didn’t draw it,” said assistant House majority leader Michael Moran, who cochaired the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, about his draft proposal for new House districts.
On the Senate’s side, the draft for new district lines includes two new districts where white residents are the minority, which would bring the total of majority-minority seats in that chamber up to five. That disappointed advocates who had identified four new majority-minority districts that could be drawn in the state.
The reason for the discrepancy is that the House used total population numbers when calculating ethnic and racial diversity in a district. In contrast, Senator William Brownsberger, the redistricting cochair in the Senate, relied on estimating the population of citizens of voting age to get to a majority when drawing new such districts, a move that he staunchly defended but one that earned him criticism from voting rights activists for missing opportunities.
Brownsberger argues that basing districts on overall population, instead of the numbers of voting-age citizens, does not ensure that minority communities will actually have the clout to elect the candidate of their choice.
“[If] you draw a district that is perhaps 55 percent Hispanic or 60 percent Hispanic,” Brownsberger said, “but the citizenship rates are too low so the people are not actually voting, then you’re sort of holding out a bit of a false hope for people, right? It’s not actually a district where they can elect the candidate of their choice.”
It does make sense on its face, and in the immediate term, Brownsberger is probably right. But these districts will be good for the next 10 years; many residents of those districts will turn 18 or acquire citizenship during that time frame.
Brownsberger’s overly cautious method prevented the creation of two additional majority-minority districts, including a primarily Black seat around Brockton.
Instead, the Senate proposal leaves the district that currently represents Brockton virtually unchanged — it includes parts of East Bridgewater, Halifax, and Plympton. Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table and a convener of the Drawing Democracy Coalition, said the coalition had proposed grouping Brockton with Randolph, Stoughton, and Avon. Based on total population combined, that district would have been 34 percent white, 45 percent Black, and 11 percent Hispanic. But considering only eligible voters, whites become a slim majority, Huang said.
If the Senate had gone with total population in that area and created that new district around Brockton, maybe that district doesn’t get a Black state senator “in 2023, but certainly there is a long-term opportunity for a well established, well known Black leader from Brockton or Randolph to get elected,” Huang said.
Brownsberger said he wanted to strongly empower communities today, “not just tomorrow,” which is a noble ideal. But that short-term thinking is not incompatible with the long-term vision. It also ignores the fact that in a lot of gateway cities it just takes longer for people of color to establish their political power. Thus, the approach that the House redistricting map is based on is perhaps a safer, stronger bet.
“We don’t want to foreclose long-term opportunities for the sake of ‘continuity,’ ” said Huang. She is right. By going for the low-hanging fruit, the Senate missed key opportunities to give more communities of color a chance to diversify the State House.
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