The Boston City Council last week moved closer to approving a city redistricting plan which proposes a map of council districts which differ little from the current voting divisions drawn and enacted into law a decade ago.
Support for the proposed map is slowly gaining momentum among city lawmakers, even as some observers contend that the plan undercuts historically disenfranchised voters.
Map opponents argue that the growth of minority groups in Boston require dramatically reconfigured districts that respond to rapidly changing demographics.
The city of Boston is comprised of 53 percent black, Latino and Asian residents, yet they collectively hold only 16 percent of the district council seats.
Each decade, the city must redraw district lines following the federal census to ensure that representation in the council is evenly divided.
The reapportionment process is also designed to protect the rights of racial voting blocs that have been the target of electoral suppression in Boston for decades.
At the center of the debate are nine council districts seats carved out of the city’s population. Four other at-large seats make up the council’s 13-member body.
In the protracted and often opaque redistricting process — where as many as eight map variations have been presented by council members and outside advocacy groups — the council released a redistricting plan during a hastily called session where only 50 people attended.
Councilor Bill Linehan, of South Boston and chair of the redistricting committee, said the presented map was a compromise between various redistricting plans suggested by Council President Steve Murphy, Tito Jackson, Matt O’Malley, Charles Yancey and a coalition of advocacy groups.
Linehan said the map best represents the city’s population growth over the last decade, adding that he felt the most political “pain” in losing coveted voters than other councilors as precincts were added and subtracted from various districts. Incumbent councilors — always eyeing re-election prospects — generally avoid changes in districts they represent.
Some community leaders balked at the plan presented last week, saying that so-called minority voters are being subjected to racial gerrymandering.
Cheryl Claybone-Crawford of MassVote, a downtown advocacy group, also stated that the Linehan plan unwisely splits voters in District 2 where the South Boston politician is the incumbent.
“We ask that you not crack District 2,” Claybone-Crawford said in her testimony before the council, contending that dividing the Chinatown neighborhood in District 2 was tantamount to incumbency protection and weakening the voter strength of Asians.
Linehan was narrowly victorious in a hotly contested council race against Chinatown activist Suzanne Lee in 2011.
Yancey’s map is seen by some observers as the most aggressive in supporting so-called minority voting strength by creating a new incumbent-free district which would likely allow an Asian or Latino to be elected from a district seat for the first time in Boston history.
Yancey also seeks to unify the neighborhood of Mattapan into a single district. Currently Mattapan is split between Yancey and City Councilor Robert Consalvo of Hyde Park.
Consalvo argued last week that he supports Mattapan unification, if possible.
A voting rights coalition of color, including the Boston NAACP, Oiste, the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under the Law and the Chinese Progressive Association, balked at Yancey’s map. Coalition members say the Mattapan neighborhood should remain split in order to bolster minority voter strength elsewhere. The coalition’s plan also ensures that each incumbent is protected.
“They are offering a status quo map...which is regressive in every way” said Yancey in an interview on Boston Public Radio on a WGBH radio show last week in a blistering rebuke of the coalition. “We have to make room on the council for emerging communities of color.”
Yancey noted that the map offered by the NAACP coalition is a sharp reversal from a stance it took late last year when it aggressively lobbied the council to separate Chinatown from District 2 where the South Boston voters dominate.
Yancey said the civil rights group has also backtracked from its initial push to unify Mattapan into a single district, abandoning its former position in support of building upon black electoral strength.
In a December 2011 letter to the Boston City Council, the NAACP said it believed that “making Mattapan whole and separating Chinatown/South End from South Boston” is needed to protect minority “voting rights.”
The letter continued, saying that “this [redistricting process] is a real opportunity for positive change to empower groups that have historically been denied fair representation.”