Top election official rips redistricting plan    

Secretary of the Commonwealth Bill Galvin says a bill before Massachusetts Legislature would actually preempt cities and towns from drawing their own districts. 

BOSTON — The state's top election official is ripping a proposal that would require the state Legislature to redraw local political maps, suggesting the move is a power grab by lawmakers.

A proposal heard by the Legislature's Election Laws Committee on Monday would eliminate the June 15 deadline for local governing boards to approve voting precincts, and allow the Legislature to set the precincts using census tracts, after it draws new maps for congressional and legislative districts.

Supporters say the changes are necessary amid delays in the release of community data from the 2020 Census, which is used to redraw the political boundaries every 10 years.

But Secretary of State Bill Galvin, who oversees elections, says the changes are "unnecessary and unwise" and would likely result in legal challenges.

"This bill would actually preempt cities and towns from drawing their own districts," Galvin told the panel on Monday. "They will be bound by these districts created by the Legislature, whether they make any sense or not, or whether they accurately reflect changes that have occurred in the communities."

Galvin said the June 15 deadline isn't a concern because his office doesn't intend to press local governments for the maps with the delays.

"We would have no basis for doing so because they don't have the numbers to re-precinct," he told the panel.

Voting rights groups say the changes are necessary, and won't disenfranchise local governments.

"This process is consistent with what the overwhelming majority of other states already do," Geoff Foster, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, told the committee.

"It will enable the Legislature to identify communities of interest, design districts to facilitate equal representation and perhaps most importantly to protect the voting rights of historically disenfranchised communities," he said.

Voting rights advocate Avi Green, who has worked on previous redistricting efforts, pointed out that the precinct maps to be drawn by the redistricting commission would still need to be approved by local officials. He said there would be time to make changes before the boundaries are finalized.

"This will mean better maps," he told the panel. "It will not restrict the ability of cities and towns to create great precincts."

The U.S. Census Bureau announced in March that due to the pandemic and other delays, it will not be able to deliver detailed data from last year's count that states need for redistricting until Sept. 30, instead of March 31.

The bureau says some redistricting data will be released in an older format by August for states facing tight deadlines to redraw maps ahead of fall elections.

Galvin said his office has been working with many local governments to prepare to redraw the local maps once the data is released from the bureau.

But the Democrat said he would urge Republican Gov. Charlie Baker to veto the legislative proposal if it reaches his desk.

"To say to communities -- whether it's Danvers, Brookline or Newton -- that you can't redraw your precincts, and your local communities are going to be defined by us, is unacceptable," he told the panel.

It's not clear whether Galvin's vocal opposition to the proposal will kill the measure, or whether lawmakers will resurface with an alternative plan.

"There are definitely two distinct points of views on this issue," Election Laws Committee Co-chair Sen. Barry Finegold, D-Andover, said at the end of Monday's hearing. "But we have to move quickly ... and there's a lot at stake."

Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at cwade@cnhinews.com

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