While census data released this week means Massachusetts will keep its nine seats in the U.S. House, yet-to-be-released local population estimates will determine how Statehouse districts will be redrawn.
Among state lawmakers representing Berkshire County, there is concern their districts will expand farther east.
While lawmakers express confidence in their ability to represent the Berkshires no matter how the maps are drawn, adding new communities to a district would dilute the influence of those now in the district. Many Berkshire cities and towns would make up a smaller share of the voting base in future elections.
“Estimates point to our region either losing population or gaining at a pace much slower than eastern Massachusetts,” state Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, wrote in an email. “We won’t know the full impact on Berkshire County and [western Massachusetts] until we see the local level data, but we can expect that our House districts are going to get larger geographically and expand further into Franklin, Hampshire and Hampden counties.”
The 7,029,917 people counted in Massachusetts means that each House district would contain 41,740 to 46,133 people, said Mark, who represents the 2nd Berkshire District and chaired the redistricting committee in the House for the 2017-2018 and 2019-2020 legislative sessions.
Precinct-level data will be released to states by Sept. 30, census officials have said. While hearings on congressional districts have begun, lawmakers expect work to accelerate in the fall.
The Special Joint Committee on Redistricting now is led by Brighton Democrat Michael Moran in the House and Belmont Democrat William Brownsberger in the Senate. Two Pittsfield Democrats — state Sen. Adam Hinds and state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier — are among the 28 lawmakers serving on that committee.
While there are signs that some Berkshire communities gained population during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s unclear to what extent that increase was captured in the census, which finished collection Oct. 16. On the whole, Berkshire County has lost population since 1970.
“I almost wish the census was now, because we’ve seen people have migrated to the Berkshires,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli.
Pignatelli represents the 4th Berkshire District, which includes 17 towns in southern Berkshire County as well as Blandford, Russell and Tolland in Hampden County. He said he could see his district “going up to 23 or 24 towns.”
State Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, added that the 1st Berkshire District he represents is “down significantly” in population and “will probably have to add additional communities” to the nine it includes.
Farley-Bouvier’s 3rd Berkshire District includes all of Pittsfield except Ward 1B, and she said her district “tends to change the least” because Pittsfield usually has a more stable population. In the 2nd Berkshire District, Mark represents Ward 1B and five Berkshire towns — Dalton, Hinsdale, Peru, Savoy and Windsor — as well as 10 communities in Franklin County.
Pignatelli was sworn in to represent a newly drawn district in 2003, and he said that during the post-2000 census redistricting cycle, a top priority for those involved was ensuring that Pittsfield kept three voices in the Statehouse. While population trends from the 2010 census took his district out of Pittsfield, it’s “important as the capital city of the Berkshires to have as many voices as possible,” Pignatelli said.
Whether Pittsfield can keep the two seats it now has in the House will depend on how its population has changed.
“If the population of Pittsfield is big enough that I’m sharing Pittsfield with [Mark] or another rep, I think that’s good news for the city,” Farley-Bouvier said.
Barrett, Mark, Farley-Bouvier and Pignatelli have discussed the possibility of drawing up their own proposal to present to the redistricting committee, they said.
The county delegation held more than 40 events, alongside the census and Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office, over the past two years to encourage people to fill out the census, Mark said.
Residents also can contribute public comment to the committee at malegislature.gov/Redistricting/Contact.
In the Senate’s Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire district, Hinds said he expects that adding communities will be necessary to make up 15,000 to 20,000 people to get to the 170,000 range necessary for Senate districts.
A priority will be to ensure that communities in a district have a “natural relationship” in terms of shared interests, culture and history, Hinds said.