New Bedford is served by five members of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. All of them are white, and three live outside the city. 

That’s a result of the way voting districts were drawn last decade, when several diverse neighborhoods of New Bedford were lumped into districts with neighboring rural communities and wealthier coastal towns along Buzzard’s Bay.

This decade, as demographic changes recorded in the latest Census demand the recalibration of voting districts so they are roughly equal in population, legislators say they’re trying to be more intentional about drawing boundaries that create a legislature that's reflective of the state’s racial makeup. As recently as 2019, people of color accounted for 29 percent of Massachusetts' population but only 13 percent of seats in the legislature, according to a report from the nonprofit think tank MassINC.

On Tuesday, the state legislature’s redistricting committee unveiled new maps dividing Massachusetts into 160 voting districts to elect the state House of Representatives, and 40 voting districts to elect the Massachusetts Senate. Under the plan, 38 of those 200 lawmakers would have to seek re-election in districts where a majority of residents are people of color, comprising about a fifth of seats in the legislature.

“We have an obligation under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to make sure that every minority that’s large enough within a given potential district is able to elect a candidate of their own choice,” said State Senator William Brownsberger, the Senate’s leader on redistricting, at a hearing on Tuesday introducing the maps. 

“There is not a single place on the House map where you can draw a majority-minority opportunity district where we haven’t,” said State Representative Michael Moran, the House’s leader on redistricting.

As part of the proposed changes, which legislators expect to finalize after a final period of public comment ends next Monday, New Bedford would see the number of state representatives with at least a portion of their district in the city drop from five to four.

But the proposal would consolidate some of New Bedford’s most diverse neighborhoods into a single district where urban voters are expected to have a more direct say over who represents them. The parts of downtown New Bedford and the North End united by the proposal are currently split into separate districts that stretch deep into the surrounding suburbs. 

Rep. Christopher Hendricks, who plans to run for re-election in the new majority minority district next year, said the way the boundaries are drawn today requires him to serve two communities with vastly different needs.

The eastern part of his district is the town of Acushnet, a rural community with no stoplight and a population that is more than 90 percent white. The other side of his district is New Bedford’s North End, a dense neighborhood of tenements and industrial buildings centered around a busy avenue of ethnic businesses. 

“You definitely have to wear a lot of hats with the district as it’s made up currently,” Hendricks said. 

“Minority populations are going to have a stronger voice,” Hendricks continued. “Their voting district isn’t cut up with folks from out of town.”

Not all cities would see significant changes to how they elect state lawmakers. Fall River, the South Coast’s second largest city, will keep the current boundaries of its House districts under the redistricting proposal. The state senators representing Fall River and New Bedford would also see their districts left relatively untouched.

The redistricting committee has a deadline to finalize the boundaries of state voting districts by early November. Afterwards, it will take up the redistricting of Massachusetts’ nine congressional districts, which elect members to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Ben Berke is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. He can be reached at bberke@thepublicsradio.org.