It was hard enough the first time.
Now, the divided and disorganized Boston City Council must take another pass at redrawing its own districts, after a federal judge on Monday blocked its first attempt from going into effect, finding that councilors likely prioritized race in an improper manner during last fall’s redistricting process. This time, as they craft another map, councilors face not only the increased scrutiny of the federal judiciary, but also the pressure of an imminent deadline: The City Council general election is less than six months away, candidates have just two weeks to submit nominating papers, and it’s still not clear which districts they’ll be running in.
Split politically and personally, the council last fall stumbled and shouted its way through the decennial redistricting process, which required the city to roughly equalize the population in its nine council districts in response to the latest federal census figures. The weeks-long effort exposed and exacerbated divides on the council, which fall along both ideological and racial lines, brewing heated public arguments, accusations of racism and anti-Catholic bias, and a lawsuit that pit a number of the council’s more conservative members against the body as a whole.
Now, under the watchful eye of the federal court, the council will have to come together to draw a new map that complies with a complex tangle of federal legal requirements. Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Mayor Michelle Wu said the city “is committed to a speedy and smooth resolution to redistricting and to a clear and transparent election process.”
But the city will need to act quickly to avoid confusion ahead of this fall’s elections.
“The deadline is now. The City Council needs to act,” said Secretary of State William F. Galvin. In 1983, the last time Boston districts were blocked by a federal court, the city ultimately had to delay its elections. Galvin said he believes that can be avoided this year if councilors “get to work.”
“We don’t need the rhetorical competition that we saw go on earlier,” he added. “It’s time to get down to it and get it done, if the calendar is to be saved. And it should be — there’s no reason not to.”
But the council has so far given no indication of how or when that will happen.
Redistricting Committee Chair Liz Breadon did not respond to questions about the path forward. Council President Ed Flynn said he has spoken to the secretary of state, mayor’s office, and city law department about next steps, but did not offer specifics.
As the council works to draw a new map that will pass constitutional muster, Wu is working “to ensure that potential candidates for the office of District City Council have an opportunity to run despite any unexpected changes as district lines are redrawn,” a spokesperson said Tuesday.
The city will look to extend timelines for filing nomination papers, the spokesperson added, and candidates should continue to file documents with the elections department.
Experts say the city could also relax the requirement mandating that candidates live in the district for which they’re running for at least one year, or even push back the election itself, though some of those steps would require approval from the Legislature.
Councilor Gabriela Coletta, who represents East Boston, said, “We need to utilize this as an opportunity to put differences aside and restart a process that prioritizes compactness, contiguity, and respect for communities of interest.”
“I am committed to doing just that,” she added.
Several other councilors declined comment or did not respond to requests.
In the meantime, council candidates are collecting signatures and looking to win voters — even as it remains unclear exactly which voters will end up in which districts.
Perhaps the most potential for chaos and confusion comes in Dorchester-based District Three and neighboring Mattapan-based District Four, whose boundaries are at particular issue in the lawsuit.
Take for example public school teacher and council candidate Joel Richards. Under the old map that has been in place for the last decade, Richards lives in District Four. But under the new — now blocked — map, he lives in District Three, where he has already declared he is running.
“I’m going to keep campaigning,” he said Tuesday. Under all potential new maps considered by the council last year, he noted, he lived in District Three, so he is not concerned he will end up on the wrong side of a district boundary.
Two other District Three candidates, John FitzGerald and Jennifer Johnson, also said they will continue campaigning for the position. Attempts to reach other contenders in the district were not successful Tuesday. FitzGerald said in a statement that the judge’s ruling “affirms what many of us have always known, that communities are stronger when united.”
“I hope the City Council will keep that in mind as they move quickly to enact a new map that will end the current confusion amongst candidates and residents alike,” he said.
Councilor Frank Baker, who vocally opposed the new map, currently represents District Three, but is not seeking reelection.
Jacob M. Love, an attorney who was part of a team at Lawyers for Civil Rights that filed an amicus brief in support of the city, said the council may not need to start from scratch.
“The problem the judge zeroed in on was quite limited,” Love said.
The chaos stems from a lawsuit filed last year over the “unity map” of new council districts that passed the council 9–4. Responding to population swells and shifts, the new map shuffled thousands of voters from South Boston-based District Two into Dorchester-based District Three, and from District Three into Mattapan-based District Four.
One particularly contentious change: The council severed from District Three a cluster of majority-white, high-turnout precincts in the southern tip of Dorchester, an area that includes many of the city’s most conservative voters. Those voters would have been added to neighboring District Four, which also includes parts of Dorchester, Jamaica Plain, and Roslindale.
While proponents said the changes were needed to empower communities of color and avoid illegally “packing” Black voters into District Four, critics argued the decisions improperly relied on race and unnecessarily split up communities, such as the Neponset neighborhood in Dorchester and a public housing development in South Boston.
A group of residents and neighborhood groups sued the city last year, in a case that ultimately drew financial support from several city councilors who had voted against the map. They argued that mapmakers had too heavily considered race as they drew the new boundaries.
Race is necessarily entangled with the redistricting process, which is governed by the Voting Rights Act, a federal law that looks to avoid the injustices of the past by ensuring communities of color are not disempowered or disenfranchised by political boundaries. Mapmakers, for example, cannot pack communities of color into so few districts that their political power is limited, nor “crack” them among so many districts that their voices are drowned out.
But mapmakers are also barred from “racial gerrymandering” without “sufficient justification,” Saris wrote in her ruling.
The “legitimate role of race in the redistricting process is legally complex terrain,” Richard H. Pildes, a professor at the New York University School of Law, said in an e-mail.
“The Voting Rights Act sometimes requires race to be taken into account, but doing so excessively can violate the Constitution,” Pildes said. “It’s not uncommon for jurisdictions, even acting in good faith, to run afoul of one or the other of these obligations.”
Jeremiah Manion of the Globe staff contributed reporting.