By Lydia Lowe, Executive Director of the Chinese Progressive Association
After more than a year of public testimony, internal debate, and two vetoed proposals, Boston City Council adopted a new district map on October 31 of this year. The new map passed the council by a vote of 11 to 2. Councilor Bill Linehan of District 2, who chaired the Committee on Census and Redistricting, voted in opposition.
A coalition of community advocates known as the Coalition of Color on Redistricting had advocated for historically under-represented communities of color to increase opportunities for political influence and to elect candidates of their choice, publicly threatening to sue the City of Boston on the basis of the Voting Rights Act. With the threat of a lawsuit imminent, Mayor Menino vetoed two maps passed by the council which kept the current district structure largely intact.
The final map brought the most change to Districts 4 and 5 in the southern part of the city, and to Districts 2 and 3 in the north. Opportunity for communities of color increased significantly in District 5, which includes Hyde Park, Roslindale, and Mattapan, and now has a population that is 70 percent people of color and nearly half Black.
Much of the debate for the past year centered on proposed changes to District 2, which includes Chinatown, the South End, and South Boston, and formerly included two precincts from the Andrew Square area of Dorchester. Because District 2 was the most over-populated district, any new map would need to remove precincts from District 2. Voting patterns in the district have typically been polarized between two different voting blocs: South Boston/Andrew Square and Chinatown/South End. South Boston and Andrew Square have held more than 60 percent of the vote share in city elections over the past decade. Coalition of Color advocates called for the Chinatown and South End precincts to remain intact.
In the previous city council race, Councilor Linehan narrowly topped Chinatown challenger Suzanne Lee by 97 votes. As Linehan publicly stated in the final city council meeting on redistricting, that issue weighed heavily in his mind as he considered changes to the district map. His first map proposal would have split Chinatown in half by removing from the District the precinct that votes at the Franklin Institute and includes heavily Chinese housing developments such as Mass Pike Towers, Castle Square and South Cove Plaza. Linehan continued to propose a series of maps that would remove at least one or two South End precincts, targeting five different South End precincts at different times.
The final map, passed by the council and signed by the mayor, removes four precincts from District 2 to District 3, currently represented by Councilor Frank Baker. The precincts removed from District 2 included: two Dorchester precincts from the Andrew Square Area (Ward 7 Precincts 8 and 9); one South End precinct (Ward 8 Precinct 2) which runs from Rutland Street down through Boston Medical Center; and one South Boston precinct (Ward 7 Precinct 7) which includes the Mary Ellen McCormack housing project and overwhelmingly consists of people of color. One new precinct from the downtown/City Hall area was added to District 2.
As a result of these changes, South Boston now represents 49.8 percent of the registered voters in the district. Based on historic voting patterns, however, South Boston would most likely represent about 59 percent of voter turnout, down from 61 percent in the 2011 election. While the changes are not dramatic, they are significant. Chinatown has steadily and dramatically increased its voter participation for the past decade. This November’s turnout represented an 18 percent increase over the prior presidential election in 2008.
Some forty years ago, Chinatown was zoned for adult entertainment because it was known as the neighborhood that didn’t vote. Today, Chinatown residents are gaining the political clout to demand a fair share of city jobs, services, and the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice.