Voting precincts may need to be redrawn

June 12, 2009
By

JOHN RUCH

Council: Century-old lines affect voters, districts

The city’s voting precincts—the smallest units of voting districts—have not been redrawn in more than 90 years, causing voter-access problems and oddities in Boston City Council districts, according to City Coun-cil President Mike Ross.

Ross and JP City Councilor John Tobin led the call for an in-depth look at the problem at the May 20 City Council meeting held at English High School.

The city’s press office could not immediately confirm the age of the existing precincts or whether there has been any move to update them. Ross said early discussions have included rumors that a Boston-only law has exempted the city from altering its precincts, but that no one has been able to cite it specifically.

Tobin later told the Gazette that, because of issues of “fairness and voter access, it makes sense to look at [the precinct issue].”

All Boston residents live in a precinct and are assigned to a polling place based on it. All precincts are supposed to be roughly equal in population, but the lack of updates in nearly a century has made them significantly different, Ross and Tobin said.

As a result, they said, some precincts have far too many voters for the polling place to handle, while others have too few. Long lines can deter people from voting. In one recent voting scandal, several polls in JP and other neighborhoods ran out of ballots, disenfranchising an unknown number of voters.

The precincts are the basis for all electoral districts, including those for city, state and federal gov-ernment bodies.

Ross claimed that redrawn precincts could save the city $100,000 or more in election-running costs, though he did not explain where that estimate came from.

The odd shapes of existing precincts may be partly to blame for the City Council’s difficulty in drawing districts that roughly match neighborhood boundaries, Ross and Tobin said. Their own districts are classic examples.

Ross’s District 8 covers almost all of Mission Hill, but dips down to include a large section of Hyde Square. Tobin’s District 6 covers almost all of JP, but creeps up the back of Mission Hill.

At a “town hall” meeting prior to the City Council meeting, some residents complained about the confusing district/neighborhood boundaries. “We feel like stepchildren back there,” said one Back of the Hill resi-dent.

Ross indicated that drawing new precincts could help solve that issue, while Tobin was more cautious.

The entire City Council was receptive to the idea of “reprecincting” when Ross brought it up. But it is unclear what the next step will be. Tobin suggested a council committee may form to examine it.

Precincts are organized into larger districts called wards. It is possible that changing the precincts—particularly reducing the amount of them—could change the wards as well, Tobin said.

Tobin noted that some long-time voters identify strongly with their precincts the way some residents do with their ZIP Codes. The local Democratic Party also has some locally powerful “ward committees” built around ward-by-ward electoral campaigning.

“You will get pushback based on sentimentality and tradition,” Tobin said of any plan for changing pre-cincts. “We need to put practicality, access and cost-savings ahead of tradition.”

The investigation into reprecincting the city goes hand-in-hand with the legally mandated redrawing of electoral districts for the City Council and other government bodies that will follow the 2010 US Census.

That process, known as redistricting, is typically contentious and full of complex issues. Another sig-nificant Boston problem that might be addressed by the council is the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s (BRA) incorrect census analysis map.

As the Gazette reported six years ago, the BRA uses a deliberately incorrect map of Boston neighborhoods as a census-counting convenience. Almost every city agency uses the map’s neighborhood census data to deter-mine statistics and the delivery of services. Because the analysis is faulty, so are all of those reports and possibly the service-delivery programs based on them. While acknowledging the map is inaccurate, the BRA has not followed calls to fix it, saying that consistency between censuses is more important.

In JP, the map cuts out vast sections of Forest Hills and Parkside, while adding all of Mission Hill and the Longwood Medical Area. Among the errors of this analysis was the city’s incorrect claim that JP’s minor-ity population dropped in the last US Census.

Tobin told the Gazette that the BRA map at least should more closely match post office ZIP Codes for neighborhoods.

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