Advocates on Monday said the Massachusetts Legislature may be violating voting rights law by refusing to draw a majority-minority state Senate district based in Brockton, New England’s only majority-Black city. They said they are “keeping all legal options on the table.”
Lawmakers unveiled proposals for new state Senate and House districts last week in the decennial redistricting process. The draft maps leave Brockton’s lone state Senate district virtually untouched and keep the city clustered with mostly white suburbs south of Boston. Advocates fear the structure of the district prevents communities of color from electing their candidates of choice, and local activists say the city’s representatives on Beacon Hill sometimes fail to serve residents’ interests because they are catering to the preferences of conservative white communities in the surrounding suburbs.
Currently, not a single one of Brockton’s representatives on Beacon Hill is a person of color.
Advocates with the Drawing Democracy Coalition have been pushing for a redrawn district that would bring together Brockton, Randolph, and Stoughton, communities that are “tied together through a shared interest in economic mobility and home ownership, along with common immigrant backgrounds,” Oren Sellstrom, litigation director for Lawyers for Civil Rights Boston, said in a statement.
Senator William N. Brownsberger, co-chair of the Legislature’s Committee on Redistricting, has said he did not draw the majority-minority district because he did not identify a Voting Rights Act violation in the area, and said without one, the law “requires us to draw districts without regard to race.” Sellstrom and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal, executive director of LCR Boston, pushed back in a letter to Brownsberger on Monday, arguing that the Senate not only can but should keep similarly situated “communities of interest” together.
“In fact, a legislature that purposefully avoids recognizing a community of interest where people of color dominate, out of an exaggerated fear of being accused of racial gerrymandering, risks liability for that stance,” the letter said.
“After all, many communities of interest include predominantly white people (e.g., an Irish enclave or an Italian-American residential/commercial district). A legislature cannot recognize and respect those communities of interest, but then turn around and refuse to recognize those communities of interest where non-whites form the majority. That would itself constitute impermissible discrimination and be subject to legal challenge. In reality, the law allows both: recognition of communities of interest that are predominantly people of color, as well as communities of interest that are predominantly white.”
Brownsberger did not immediately return a message Monday seeking comment on the letter.
In an interview Monday evening, Sellstrom said he views the issue as a “legal misunderstanding” on the part of the redistricting committee and remained hopeful the maps will be redrawn before they are finalized in the coming weeks.
When asked whether the dispute could lead to litigation, Sellstrom said, “Our strong hope is that it won’t come to the point of a lawsuit” and that legislators “will come to a new conclusion that will not disadvantage communities of color.”
The coalition — which includes the ACLU of Massachusetts, MassVOTE, and other groups — has been pushing lawmakers to create a Senate district centered on Brockton that would include Randolph, Avon, and Stoughton. This district would include a population that is 34 percent white and 45 percent Black, which would better empower Brockton’s communities of color to elect the representatives of their choice.
In the current redistricting cycle, as well as in 2011, Massachusetts lawmakers have prioritized drawing so-called majority-minority seats, where people of color make up most of the population. These districts are intended to empower communities of color to elect their candidates of choice — though history shows that is not always the outcome.
Randolph is a 35,000-person community north of Brockton where roughly 70 percent of residents are people of color.
Last week, Brownsberger said his decision not to draw a majority-minority district anchored in Brockton was not made in the interest of protecting an incumbent, which in Brockton’s case would be Democratic Senator Michael D. Brady. Brownsberger said that without the mandate to address a Voting Rights Act violation, the committee had to focus on the “larger decision ... of how to draw all the South Shore seats. And in that fabric, continuity is one thread.”
Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table and a convener of the Drawing Democracy Coalition, pushed back, arguing that continuity is not the most pressing issue in this case.
“Continuity speaks toward an incumbent having similar voters,” she said. “I have nothing personal against Mike Brady, who has been a good senator, but continuity is about legislators choosing voters instead of voters choosing legislators. I think the racial equity considerations should outweigh the principal of continuity.”