Councilors Wu and Linehan discuss voting and public input

Boston City Council President Michelle Wu’s monthly media meet-up was held March 3 at City Hall. She invited District 2 City Councilor Bill Linehan to discuss ongoing projects around Boston.

City Councilor Bill Linehan spoke about voting access on March 3 at City Hall. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Every 10 years, voting precincts are updated based on U.S. Census population data to make sure each precinct has an equal number of voters. Boston is an exception – because of an outdated special law that exempts Boston from drawing new precinct lines, Boston has the most unequal distribution of voters by precinct for more than 50 years. The city of Boston has 255 precincts. The smallest one has less than 500 registered voters (Ward 8, Precinct 6 near South Bay), and the largest precinct (Ward 3, Precinct 8 in Chinatown) has more than 6,000 registered voters. The unequal voter distribution means there are long lines at certain polling locations, which could deter people from voting.

For the presidential election in November 2016, the City Council and the Election Commission subdivided some large precincts to increase voting efficiency. “We asked the Election Commission to give out more information and put more boxes, so people from one precinct would be able to get a ballot sooner in those largest precincts – and ultimately they put all the ballots into one box for that precinct,” Linehan said. “It turned out to be extremely effective, along with the early voting that the mayor implemented and we have asked for.”

With local elections this year, Wu and Linehan filed a home rule petition to add more polling locations in the six largest precincts, as well as subdividing the six precincts to reduce wait times and increase voter access, without delineating new precincts before the next U.S. Census is conducted for 2020.

Linehan said the additional sites would be closer to residents so they don’t have to travel miles away to vote. “Voting needs to be accessible to all with a reasonable amount of time waiting in the line,” he said.

The petition needs state Legislature approval by June, with the City Council and the Election Commission then discussing details for new polling stations. Re-precincting and sub-precincting must be approved for implementation in time for the September primaries.

The affected precincts are mostly downtown in Councilor Linehan’s District 2:

  • Ward 3, Precinct 6 (Downtown)
  • Ward 3, Precinct 7 (South End)
  • Ward 3, Precinct 8 (Chinatown)
  • Ward 5, Precinct 1 (Bay Village, Chinatown)
  • Ward 6, Precinct 1 (Seaport, Fort Point, South Boston)
  • Ward 9, Precinct 3 (South End/Lower Roxbury)

Boston City Councilor President Michelle Wu spoke about civic engagement on March 3 at her monthly media meeting at City Hall. (Image courtesy of Ruobing Su.)

Wu sought to increase civic engagement by drawing up an ordinance to codify the right of free petition in Boston. Other cities and towns in Massachusetts, such as Chelsea, Lawrence, Winthrop and Newton, have already codified free petition at the municipal level. Wu’s ordinance would require the Boston City Council to hold a public hearing on the subject of any group petition signed by 250 or more residents within three months. She said the goal was to provide another outlet for the residents of Boston, regardless of voter registration and immigration status, to get more involved in influencing policy and public discourse.

Wu said a list of subjects cannot be heard through free petition to keep the Council’s work efficient, such as internal affairs within City Hall or issues irrelevant to public interest.

The proposal has received a mixed reaction from city councilors so far. Some councilors emphasized civic engagement and the need to strengthen democracy especially under President Trump’s hostile administration. However, some councilors were concerned about this mechanism giving voice to opportunists or take time away from constituent services by having to attend hearings.

“Not a single person or advocacy group I have talked to so far doesn’t think it is a good idea. This will be a way for every person to feel that city government is a place that they can make an impact,” Wu said. “It will be more work for the City Council, but I believe that’s something we should do for the people.”

Wu said the early education and childcare monthly workshops organized by her and the other three female city councilors already started. The first briefing held by Councilor Annissa Essaibi-George took place Feb. 26 at Horizons for Homeless Children’s Early Education Center in Roxbury with a panel of policy experts and advocates discussing childcare for homeless families.

Furthermore, Councilor Andrea Campbell and Linehan filed a hearing to discuss the feasibility of Boston Fire Department cadet training, an on-the-job training program targeted at Boston residents 18 to 24 who are interested in careers as firefighters, modeled after Boston Police Department’s cadet program that was reinstated last year. The matter was sent to the Public Safety & Criminal Justice Committee for further discussion.

Councilor Linehan’s last year in the City Council will be 2017. He said, “One thing I have enjoyed about being a councilor is actually having some impact outside the building. I will still be civically connected to the city, and do something related with government and public service.”

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