City Council weighs need to re-draw precinct lines

Officials in City Hall are weighing a redraft of Boston’s district precinct lines, saying a do-over is long overdue. Under state law, each precinct must be capped at 4,000 residents, and cities and towns are required to equalize the precincts every ten years, after the federal census is completed.

But Boston is exempt from the law, and last time the city undertook an overhaul of its precincts was in the 1920s. City officials say with population growth and shifts, an imbalance has been created. The imbalance has led to some precincts in which people have waited in long lines to vote.

“You have some precincts where you wait for hours and other precincts where you walk in and there’s nobody there,” said Maureen Feeney, District Three’s city councillor.

Some precincts have as many as 6,000 people, such as the South End, while others have as few as 850, like the Ward 8 Precinct 6 area on the edge of Roxbury and Dorchester, by Newmarket Square, she said.

A re-drawing of the precinct lines – separate from redistricting, which includes a reworking of Congressional and legislative districts – would save tens of thousands of dollars in the cost of conducting elections, with police officers and Election Day workers getting spread out more efficiently, according to supporters.

City Council President Michael Ross’s office is spearheading the effort to remove Boston’s exemption under state law and is drafting legislation to allow the city’s elections department to redraw the lines every ten years, like other cities and towns are able to. Polling locations will likely end up being combined, Feeney said.

At a City Council hearing last week, the head of the city’s board of election commissioners, Geraldine Cuddyer, said she supported the overhaul.

“A brand new neighborhood has emerged on the South Boston waterfront where warehouses once stood, and Boston’s downtown neighborhoods have blossomed as exciting places to live and work, as evidenced by the boom in condominium developments,” she said. “The result of such dramatic changes is an imbalance in the city’s precincts.”

But Cuddyer said reprecincting must be handled in a “prudent and deliberate manner,” noting that the 2010 federal census must first be completed before the overhaul begins. Mayor Thomas Menino’s recent appointment to the board of elections commissioners, Ellen Rooney of Back Bay, will be the election department’s “point person” on the 2010 census, and “it is my expectation that she will also serve in that capacity as we delve further into the process of equalizing Boston’s precincts,” Cuddyer added.

“The most important factor of this discussion is the successful conduct and completion of the 2010 census in the city of Boston,” she said.

City Councillor At-Large and mayoral hopeful Sam Yoon points to New York City – with a population almost 20 times that of Boston at 12 million – which handled reprecincting in a week.

“The tone of the hearing from the administration was that this was going to be an incredible burden to the city,” Yoon told the Reporter. “It’s just a symptom of how far we’ve let things go by.”

The technology exists for it to be a quick and efficient process, he said.

But others disagreed. Feeney, who oversaw the city’s redistricting process in 2002 after the 2000 federal census, said it’s a complex task. While chair of the city’s redistricting committee, she redrew the lines to create a new majority-minority seat in District Five, and gave up parts of her district in order to prevent two incumbents, John Tobin and Rob Consalvo, from being forced to run against one another.

“It’s not an easy undertaking,” Feeney said of reprecincting. “It’s a much more intricate process. You’re dealing with precincts that really identify with certain neighborhoods.”

For Feeney, if left undone, reprecincting also hits close to home. She expects a planned redevelopment of Columbia Point, at the northern edge of her district, to lead to more people moving in and creating a further imbalance.

A draft master plan, written up by the Boston Redevelopment Authority, forecasts Columbia Point as a “24-hour a day neighborhood.” Three-quarters of the available land would be used for residences, adding as many as 4,300 residential units. There are currently 3,190 people living on Columbia Point, according to city records.

“Those numbers are just going to explode,” Feeney said.