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Advocates seek boost in Mass. minority voter clout

By Bob Salsberg
Associated Press / October 5, 2011

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BOSTON—Lawmakers assigned to redraw the state's political map were urged Wednesday to create at least eight new legislative districts in which minorities comprise a majority of the residents, and to retain the state's only so-called majority-minority congressional district.

The appeal from a coalition of advocacy groups came as the Legislature's Redistricting Committee moved closer to finalizing proposed changes in districts that reflect population data from the latest U.S. Census. The panel's co-chair, State Rep. Michael Moran, said he was hoping for release of the redrawn districts by the end of the month.

Citing strong gains in the state's minority population during the last 10 years, the coalition called for adding a minimum seven new minority-majority districts to the 10 currently in the state House of Representatives, and adding a third in the state Senate.

The group also said the state's 8th congressional district should remain as a majority-minority district after redistricting. The state is losing one of its 10 current seats in the U.S. House because of shifts in population to other states.

"The 2010 Census gave us a great opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and to increase the political power of people of color," said Sean Daughtry, political action chair for NAACP's Boston branch, during a news conference in front of the Statehouse.

According to the census data, the state's black population rose 26 percent in the last decade, while both the Latino and the Asian-American populations in the state rose 46 percent. The state's white population declined by 1.9 percent.

The state's total minority population is now pegged at nearly 20 percent, but combined there are only 10 minority lawmakers in the 160-member House and 40-member Senate.

Cheryl Crawford, co-director of MassVOTE, stressed that eight new majority-minority districts in the Legislature is only a minimum goal and that her group had identified other districts that could be carved out in a way that would provide significant clout for minority voters.

Such a redistricting plan would comply with the requirements of the 1965 Voters Rights Act and ensure that minorities "have full opportunity to participate in the political process and elect representatives of their choice," Crawford said.

Among the cities in Massachusetts that could potentially host new majority-minority districts are Boston, Worcester, Springfield, Lowell, Lawrence, Brockton, Fall River, Holyoke and Randolph, she said.

Moran, the House chair of the redistricting panel, stood with members of the coalition during Wednesday's event and said he was confident the new maps, when completed, would fully represent the state's ethnic makeup and be greeted warmly by advocates for minority voters.

But Moran, a Boston Democrat, said he could not yet guarantee that the goal of eight new majority-minority districts in the Legislature would be met.

"While simply connecting communities of color and getting them to a number of over 50 percent sounds easy ... if you do it the wrong way, you could lose a court case," Moran said.

All legislative and congressional districts must have approximately the same population and contiguous borders. Straying from those and other requirements could invite lawsuits, though a redistricting plan that appears to dilute the voting power of minority groups could also face a court challenge.

"We can't make everyone 100 percent happy," Moran said of the process.

Moran added that maintaining the 8th District, currently represented by U.S. Rep. Michael Capuano, a majority-minority district was his highest priority in the crafting of the new congressional district map.

The 8th District includes portions of Boston along with Cambridge, Somerville and Chelsea.

Advocates also urged the redistricting committee to consider altering the practice of counting prison inmates as residents of the communities where they are serving time, rather than the ones where they were living in prior to their arrests. Aaron Tanaka, head of the Boston Workers Alliance, said "prison gerrymandering," as he termed it, artificially inflates the population in some communities while deflating it in others.

Ending the practice completely would, however, require a change in the state constitution.