An Open Letter to City Council President Stephen Murphy on Boston Redistricting

October 12, 2012 at 11:41 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments
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Guest editorial by Kevin C. Peterson

Honorable City Council President Stephen Murphy:

In the Boston City Council redistricting process currently underway, the city stands at a crossroads of electoral crisis, marked with ugly reminders of race-based gerrymandering and the suppression of black voting rights.

While it has pleased many in the voting rights community that Mayor Thomas Menino recently vetoed two redistricting laws approved by the city council this month, in general many of us remain disheartened by the redistricting process overall. To date, two different redistricting maps have been voted on to become law by the city council. Yet, advocates disappointedly note that both pieces of legislation offered little electoral advancement and equity for black, Latino and Asian citizens in Boston. Put in a different way, each council plan failed to express a full commitment toward addressing the existing reapportionment opportunities that the city’s emerging diversity presents.

The demographic realities before the Boston City Council are multiple and undeniable: First, the city is 53% people of color—a vibrant mosaic of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians. Yet, these groups represent only 26% of those elected to district seats on the council. This troubling anomaly speaks not only to historic practices of racialized voter suppression in Boston, but is also indicative of the intractable race-conscious electoral proclivities of established conservative white voting blocs which have been reluctant to share their political power as the city has grown more diverse.

Second, in the three-decade history of city council district representation in Boston, never has there been an Asian or a Latino elected from the districts created. To many, this fact is egregiously troubling, specifically when it is gauged against the knowledge that the system of district representation was created in 1982 to ensure diversity on the city council body. To many observers, the political apartheid now characterizing the composition of the council is disconcertingly striking. This reality is the result of past redistricting plans that have organized voting districts in such ways that the electoral strength of so-called minorities has been effectively diluted.

Third, the legislation the city council recently offered essentially eviscerates the civic and political core of the Mattapan neighborhood and poses similar problems for communities such as Chinatown and the Lower Mills section of Dorchester. The city council redistricting legislation proffered ignores the importance of neighborhood cohesion, especially as it pertains to historically disenfranchised voting classes.

In this regard, I am sure you and your esteemed council collegues well know that Mattapan is a unique community, which is both ethnically diverse and racially cohesive. Its residents share common commercial and geographic boundaries as well as known problems such as extreme poverty, high crime and persistent health disparities. Sociologists and political scientists would agree that these commonalities and problems could be more effectively addressed by Mattapan residents if the neighborhood was not split between two districts. Yet, many redistricting map iterations that the city council has favorably entertained ignore fair representation in Mattapan. By including the community of Mattapan in a singular district, the council can promote community-wide organization among residents and support civic purpose and action.

In conclusion, I wish to briefly reflect on an often-misunderstood redistricting concept which has impeded the development of a fair and racially representative redistricting plan in Boston. The matter is this: Some advocates for fair redistricting–even some city councilors–have grossly misunderstood the matter of “packing” and cracking” as it refers to ensuring the voting rights of protected class citizens under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. This misunderstanding has led some to argue that to “pack” a district is wrong or that to “crack” a district is injurious.

Nothing could be further from the truth. And it is unfortunate that civic advocates, city council members and even the mayor of Boston labor under this misnomer.

The issue of “packing” and “cracking” as it appears in federal case law is actually value-neutral. The reality is that forms of “packing” can be used to bolster a case in support of the voting rights of so-called minorities. In similar redistricting cases requiring corrective redress “cracking” district maps is also a proven voting rights protection strategy. There is nothing inherently wrong with “packing” or “cracking” per se. These actions are tools that can be used constructively or destructively. When “packing” or “cracking” harms or “injures” historically disenfranchised voting classes these groups have legal recourse in the federal court.

Some advocates, including MassVote, The Chinese Progressive Association and the NAACP Boston Branch have said that reuniting Mattapan into a single district is a form of “packing”. And they believe they are correct. But in the context of protecting the voting rights of so-called minority groups under the Voting Rights Act, this logic is faulty, at best. Again, the effects of packing, in this instance, can have the effects of strengthening the electoral capacity of a protected voting classes and communities of interest.

Advocates eagerly await redistricting legislation from your body in the coming weeks. We hope that it will include a number of the following desired aspirations: First, the plan should fully represent the demography of the city so that all racial groups are valued equally as citizens. Second, the map should reflect the lowest one-person-one-vote variance to ensure equal representation. After all, this is the expressed and fundamental purpose of redistricting according to the U.S. Constitution. Third, the neighborhoods of Mattapan, Chinatown and the Lower Mills section of Dorchester should be placed in a single district. And forth, a district should be created to allow for the potential of a Latino or Asian to be elected on the district level.

A redistricting plan possessing these broad and inclusive elements will allow the city to avoid the electoral crisis it presently confronts and position Boston toward a more robust, fair and engaged civic life in the years to come.

Sincerely ,

Kevin C. Peterson
Executive Director
New Democracy Coalition

Kevin C. Peterson is founder and director of the New Democracy Coalition, an organization focused on civic literacy and electoral justice, based at the College for Public and Community Service at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  The views expressed are those of the author.


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