Selectboard logo, May 20, 2019

'The change will make for exciting town elections.'
    -- Juli BrazileUP

UPDATED: Arlington is considering reducing its number of precincts, from 21 to 16.

Every 10 years, state law requires that all communities evaluate their census data and precinct map, and determine whether it needs to be redrawn. The Select Board approves the final map, which is then submitted to the secretary of state for legal-compliance review, explained Town Clerk Juli Brazile at July 19 Select Board meeting. 

“We currently have more precincts than required by law. That has additional costs,” said Brazile. 

“I think we should take advantage of this opportunity to have 16 precincts, down from 21. We can then repurpose the election staffing, and have more people look at the ballots, enabling us to respond better to high-turnout elections. Vote by mail is fabulous, but [there is] more work with lots of precincts,” added Brazile.

Memo from town counsel

In a July 14 memo to the Select Board, town manager, planning director and director of assessments, Town Counsel Doug Heim writes, “For a town of Arlington’s size, precincts must be divided into convenient voting precincts, of no more than 4,000 residents which are compact and contiguous territory. The Town should take care to ensure that any alterations to precincts do not disproportionately negatively impact protected classes of persons or reprecinct in any manner that would create unusually shaped precincts to favor a specific political demographic.”

Also according to state law, when a precinct line moves, all Town Meeting members in that precinct must run again. The proposed changes would reduce the number of Town Meeting members to 240 (15 in each precinct) instead of the current 252. 

“The change will make for exciting town elections. Although stressful for Town Meeting members who’d have to all run again, we’ve enough time to do this,” said Brazile.

This alteration would also change the number of people on the Finance Committee to 17 (one per precinct and one at large). “However, the goal of being able to respond to the next decade of changes in elections makes the conversation, and discomfort that comes with this, worthwhile,” added Brazile.

The time line for this change is still very preliminary. “We’ll get better data in August and the final data in September,” said Brazile.

“We typically receive this information in January or February, but because of the pandemic, haven’t yet received it,” explained Heim.

Brazile also discussed how reducing the number of precincts would affect the polling locations. Arlington currently has eight polling places: five locations host three precincts, and three host two precincts. Brazile recommends keeping eight polling places, each hosting two precincts, though some voters will have to change their polling location.

Board members cautiously optimistic

“We need to approach this change with foresight in mind,” said board member Eric Helmuth.

Board Chair Steve DeCourcey said, “We need to hear from the public and Town Meeting members, and encourage them to engage in this discussion. We’ll host a public-comments session during a future Select Board meeting.” 

Board member Diane Mahon suggested getting a sense from people whether to have votes in just one central, or three places, to consolidate costs.

Residents offer feedback

During the meeting’s open forum, several people spoke against this redistricting proposal.

John Worden, Precinct 8 meeting member and Board of Registrars chair, said his board was not told or consulted about this matter. “The idea of reducing the number of precincts and polling places is a poor one,” he said.

Anna Henkin, Precinct 6 meeting member, said the 16-precinct plan “looks like gerrymandering, and I recommend getting a lot of public comment on this matter. All of the really dense neighborhoods are split up and attached to much less-dense and higher-income neighborhoods so their votes are diluted.

"I know there's no malice here; it's a computer-generated map, but voter suppression has been a major issue during the entire history of our country."

Beth Melofchik, Precinct 9 meeting member, expressed concern about the potential for less representation for certain Arlington communities, and spoke of voter suppression across the country. “I’m alarmed that the issue of saving money was raised, when Arlington typically has a 20-percent voter turnout. I don’t understand the pittance of money that would be saved; we should make voting easier.”

Cost estimates are expected later after more certain data is known.

Watch the meeting recorded by ACMi:

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This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Wednesday, July 21, 2021, and updated the same day, to correct a quote.