With the usual process for approving voting districts upended by COVID-19 and delayed U.S. Census numbers, the House and Senate have approved competing bills attempting to coordinate the setting of local wards and precincts by cities and towns and the establishment of state legislative and Congressional districts by the Legislature.

The statutory rules governing the division of cities and towns into wards and precincts requires cities and towns (every 10 years in connection with the new census count) to approve precincts and submit the information to the Office of the Secretary of the Commonwealth. These local districts are normally set early in the year and then used by the Legislature later as the building blocks for setting districts for the House and Senate, the governor’s council, and members of Congress.

With the 2020 census numbers not expected until after Labor Day, legislators are trying to fashion a process that allows state and local officials to work in parallel tracks so that final precincts and districts can be approved later in the fall with as little conflict as possible between boundaries for local precincts and state-set districts.

The House-approved bill (H. 3863) includes language that would provide for the Legislature to create new state and federal districts before cities and towns are able to draw local precincts using the 2020 Census numbers. The MMA opposed the state-first approach in the House bill because of the additional costs and voter confusion that would accompany any process where cities and towns had to create precincts to accommodate legislative districts. This framework could be particularly problematic in towns with a representative town meeting form of government and municipalities that elect local officials by districts or wards.

In a letter to House members, the MMA noted that the Secretary of Commonwealth’s Elections Division is already working to provide technical support to cities and towns in advance of the official census numbers, which are due by Sept. 30. The Legislature’s Committee on Redistricting can start drawing districts using “legacy files,” which should be available in mid-August. If the committee believes that it will need to split a city or town, the Elections Division can work with that municipality to get its local precincts established before that data is sent to the Local Elections District Review Commission. The Elections Division believes the Local Elections District Review Commission will be able to approve all precincts and submit the data to the Redistricting Committee prior to the committee releasing its draft maps for public comment.

During Senate deliberations on its version of the legislation (S. 2489), Sen. Will Brownsberger, co-chair of the Special Joint Committee on Redistricting, said the Senate bill would simply extend the deadline for cities and towns to file local re-precincting plans with the Secretary of the Commonwealth. The extension reflects the lack of data available to them right now, he said, and cities and towns will need the additional time this year. The Senate bill dropped the House language that the MMA had objected to relating to the state going first.

Given the unusual circumstances this year and the limited time for action at both the state and local level, an orderly process for setting voting districts and avoiding conflicts will require open communication and transparency and a commitment to working together with the assistance of the Secretary of the Commonwealth.

The House and Senate have not yet reached agreement on a final bill.

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