City shoots for 2020 reprecincting

October 21, 2011
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Long lines at local polls are not a fact of life and Boston City Council voted last month to do something about them, in 10 years.

Thanks to population shifts in the 80 years since Boston last redrew its voting precincts, some precincts have a few hundred voters and some have thousands, but that could all change thanks to legislation passed by City Council last month.

If the state approves the home rule petition put forward by the city last month, reprecincting is about 10 years away. It will happen after the 2020 census.

Gerry Cuddyer, chair of the Boston Election Commission, told the Gazette that the commissioners looked into the archaic laws governing reprecincting this year. They found that, while they are allowed to redraw precincts, they are not allowed to redraw the wards—the larger political boundaries that precincts make up. The new legislation “clears all that away,” she said.

“It means we will no longer lose out on savings, people won’t have to have election resources unfairly distributed and Boston will no longer be living under a different set of election rules than the rest of the state,” City Councilor Mike Ross, who sponsored the reprecincting legislation, told the Gazette.

Reprecincting could save the city “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ross said.

Voting precincts are political boundaries used, along with larger wards, to define electoral districts. At election time, there is one polling place per precinct.

Precincts are supposed to have equal populations so that voters have short wait times at the polls, and so municipalities don’t waste resources managing polling in very small or very large precincts.

Most Massachusetts cities and towns are required to redraw their voting precincts every 10 years. A state law passed in the 1920s made what officials refer to as “precinct equalization” voluntary for Boston. Ross’s legislation changes that. Starting in 2020, Boston would join the rest of the state in reprecincting every 10 years.

The 2020 reprecincting is not a done deal. City Council and Mayor Thomas Menino have signed off on it, but the state legislature still has to approve the rules change for the city, in the form of a home rule petition. Ross, who has been working closely with the voter’s rights advocacy group MassVote, said there are indications that the state legislature is willing to pass the home rule petition.

It is going to be a complicated feat. Reprecincting will have to happen in close coordination with city, state and federal redistricting. All of those political boundaries get redrawn following the U.S Census, and political district boundaries are based on voting precincts. And Boston’s precincts are severely out-of-whack.

In the JP parts of Wards 11 and 19, the two wards that cover most of the neighborhood, some precincts have as many as 1,720 registered voters and some as few as 870. According to the voter-advocacy group MassVote, the size of Boston precincts ranges from over 3,000 to fewer than 300, and one precinct, on the Harbor Islands, has one voter.