Going from Precincts to Districts

Mandi Jo Hanneke

We’ve addressed the reasons behind moving to 5 districts. But, how did the Charter Commission decide which precincts to combine into districts?

Well, by looking at the options. Believe it or not, there are only 9 ways to combine our 10 precincts into 5 districts with the requirement that the combined precincts must touch (and not by being “catty-corner”).

I was curious, so I actually colored the 9 options.  This visual aid was of tremendous help. It highlighted that some combinations look “gerrymandered” and others look more “natural”.

So how did we pick the final combination? By talking about what was important. The commission discussed neighborhoods in Town, voter turnout in precincts, and numbers of voters in precincts.

Of those three, keeping natural neighborhoods together was most important to the Commission.

For example, keeping North Amherst together requires Precinct 3 to be combined with either Precinct 1 or 2, not Precinct 10 or 9 (and Precinct 1 would not be combined with Precinct 10).

Our North Amherst residents on the Commission thought this extremely important. Doing this eliminates 5 of the 9 options (B, D, F, H, and I).

Then we talked about South Amherst: if we wanted to keep all of Amherst Woods together (Precincts 8 and 6), we had one remaining choice (A). But, doing that split up South Amherst. The Commission thought South Amherst should remain together. So, we eliminated option A.

That left us with three options: C, E, and G.  All three options combined Precincts 1 and 3 and Precincts 7 and 8. We were left with figuring out what to do with Precincts 2, 4, 5, 6, 9 and 10.

Within all of these discussions, we kept returning to voter data. While each precinct has approximately the same number of residents (3,800), they each have vastly different numbers of registered voters and turnout at local elections.

The number of registered voters in a precinct ranges from a low of 1500 (Precinct 3) to a high of 2300 (Precinct 2). Turnout also varies widely, from a low of 8% (Precinct 4) to a high of 28% (Precinct 8).

The question we struggled with here was: Do we combine precincts that roughly match in voter turnout and number of voters, or do we combine a low turnout/voter precinct with a high turnout/voter precinct?

Combining like with like increases the chances that residents of both precincts have equal “weight” in their local district elections. But, that leaves each district with even more variations in number of voters.

Doing the opposite (combining low with high) better evens out the number of voters in each district, but runs the risk of allowing one precinct to control the district, to the possible detriment of the residents of the other precinct.

Looking at the data and the natural neighborhoods, the Commission settled on combining Precinct 2 with 6 and not with 9. Turnout and number of voters better match between Precincts 2 and 6 than between Precincts 2 and 9. And, the Commission agreed that Precincts 4, 5, 9, and 10 form the core of downtown, rather than Precinct 9 being a part of Cushman.  We did recognize, though, that Cushman and East Amherst weren’t too connected.

We were left with two options—Precincts 4 with 10 and 5 with 9 or Precincts 4 with 5 and 9 with 10. The Commission eventually agreed on pairing Precincts 4 with 10 and 5 with 9.

Some argued for Precincts 4 with 5 and 9 with 10. The number of voters better match (although turnout doesn’t) and some felt the neighborhoods were more cohesive.

But, the arguments in favor of the other configuration ultimately won out. Both Precincts 4 and 10 have a portion of the Southwest dorms. If there was ever a “neighborhood” in the UMass area to keep together, it’s this one. Similarly, keeping 5 with 9 keeps the eastern side of downtown together.

Then there’s the voting data. Precincts 4 and 10 have similar voter turnout and numbers of registered voters, with turnout in both Precincts about half that of Precincts 5 and 9. If we combined 4 with 5 and 9 with 10, then we risked the potential for the voters in Precincts 9 and 5 to dominate the council elections in those wards. Putting Precincts 4 and 10 together and Precincts 5 and 9 together make it more likely that council elections will be more equally contested.

From 9 options down to 1 choice. We placed high importance on neighborhoods, but also considered how numbers of voters and voting patterns might affect elections and representation in the new districts.

Comments 2

    1. Post

      We could have kept 10 Districts, with the same lines as the current precincts, if the Commission had decided that 1 Councilor per District, with 10 District Councilors was the best option. But the Commission felt 2 Councilors per District was a better choice, mainly due to all the comments and feedback we received regarding 2 voices being better than 1 and how residents would feel more represented if they had two people, potentially with differing views, representing them. See the posts on the size of the Council and on the themes we heard for more information on this.

      The Commission was told repeatedly that we had to operate within the current confines of the 10 precincts, meaning that we could not divide the Town up into 7, 3 or 16 Districts, as we had to be able to combine or separate the current precincts evenly into the proposed Districts.

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