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Boston’s redistricting mess makes the case for independent commissions

It’s impossible to ignore the councilors’ own political interests in the ongoing fight to determine the city’s legislative districts. That’s why removing them from the redistricting process would give it more integrity.

Councilor Liz Breadon, who chaired the redistricting committee last year, and Councilor Ricardo Arroyo stood beside a proposed "unity map" at a press conference last year. The map was later struck down by a federal judge.Alexander Thompson/Globe Staff

Legislative redistricting is a complicated and messy process that’s far too often riddled with the inherent conflicts of interest that come when politicians draw the boundaries of their own districts. And, as has been made clear over the past week, Boston — where state legislators invented gerrymandering in the 19th century — remains no exception.

After a federal judge struck down a new map of Boston City Council districts that the council passed and the mayor signed last year, citing a potential violation of the Constitution’s 14th Amendment, the city’s lawmakers have been scrambling to pass a new map in time to avoid postponing this year’s council elections.


Dividing the city into nine districts of roughly equal population, while respecting the requirements in the Voting Rights Act to provide opportunities for racial minorities to gain political power, would be challenging under the best of circumstances. But political motivations and electoral self preservation seem to be clouding the council’s debate on where to draw the new district lines, which only underscores the need for independent redistricting commissions that would take council district drawing out of the hands of politicians.

“There’s funny business happening here and I just wanna name that for the record,” Boston City Councilor Julia Mejia said at a hearing on Monday, alluding to what she referred to as a “power struggle” and various political interests at play behind the scenes. While Mejia didn’t expand on what she meant, the reality is that it’s hard to ignore the councilors’ own political stakes in the final map.

Just take a look at some of the precincts that have been subject to some of the most contentious arguments in recent City Council hearings. Two of those precincts lie in Mattapan and, as of the last redistricting process 10 years ago, fall within District 5, which is represented by Ricardo Arroyo. And while the council has been considering moving them back into District 4 in order to balance population changes there, Arroyo has argued that maintaining the majority of Mattapan in his district better serves the neighborhood.


That may well be true, and it’s a valid concern. In an interview with the editorial board, state Representative Russell Holmes, who lives in and represents that area, echoed Arroyo’s concerns that further splitting Mattapan between the two districts would end up diluting the neighborhood’s voters and, ultimately, weakening their voice. But what’s also true is that the precincts that Arroyo is vociferously fighting for happen to be the ones that he performed well in during last year’s election for Suffolk district attorney — which he ultimately lost to Kevin Hayden — while the ones he’s willing to discard are ones he fared poorly in, like the precinct that runs along the border of Roslindale and West Roxbury.

Of course, that could all be a coincidence, but on several different occasions, Arroyo specifically referenced his past election results in certain precincts when privately negotiating his district lines, according to three people with firsthand knowledge of those conversations. Arroyo acknowledges he talked about his election results, but says he only did so in the context of illustrating racialized voting patterns — a consideration of the Voting Rights Act that aims to ensure that minority voters have a fair shot at electing a candidate of their choosing. Citing expert analysis reviewed by the council, he told the editorial board his election was used to show “that white and Latino voters don’t vote in alignment with Black voters in terms of their preferred candidate.”


Arroyo insists he has not considered his own electoral interests when thinking about what boundaries make the most sense for his district, but coincidences like this are enough to raise eyebrows, and that’s exactly the problem. In fact, all of Arroyo’s colleagues on the council share the same potential conflict of interest: Councilor Ed Flynn, for example, helped fund the lawsuit against the previously enacted map.

That’s ultimately why a handful of states, including California, Michigan, and Arizona, have entrusted redistricting to independent commissions. Independent commissions are not a silver bullet. In states that have them, results have been mixed, though promising: They have been less susceptible to politics and more concerned with advancing voting rights and meeting fundamental constitutional demands.

Because of the requirements of the 14th Amendment and the Voting Rights Act, those in charge of redistricting must find a delicate balance of addressing racial concerns — that is, not packing minority voters so as to concentrate their vote into a few districts and not diluting them among so many districts so as to deprive them of the ability to elect preferred candidates — all while avoiding using race as a predominant factor in determining where district lines are drawn. That’s the balancing act the council failed. The judge, citing the councilors’ own comments, found race played too prominent a role in drawing those lines.


Boston’s voters deserve a thoughtful approach that properly deals with the city’s racial divisions without muddying it with the city councilors’ own personalities or political interests. Councilors are supposed to vote on a final map on Wednesday so that the mayor has enough time to review it before the May 30 deadline. As they consider how to proceed with the map that will determine Boston’s legislative districts for the next decade, they should also be thinking about how to avoid a repeat of the way this process unfolded. The city’s voters deserve nothing less.

Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.