Colby Hamilton, Writer, WNYC News
Colby Hamilton is a general assignment reporter. He originally joined WNYC as a political blogger. He's a proud graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.
Redistricting is a once-a-decade chance to make government look more like the people who live in New York. It cuts to the quick of the idea of representative democracy: that our elected officials are the ones that best represent us. But the process can wind up benefiting politicians and political parties more than voters.
In a recent poll, 52 percent of New Yorker's said they want an independent commission to draw lines. As it stands now, they feel like elected officials are allowed to pick their voters, and not the other way around.
What’s happening with the redistricting process?
Every 10 years, the state uses census data to make shifts in federal and state district boundaries. The idea is that they will be more fair and representative of the state’s population both in Albany and Washington, D.C.
After holding public hearings across the state, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) — a group made up of state lawmakers that is charged with redrawing state legislative and congressional district lines — released its first version of the redrawn maps earlier this month. They say the new lines reflect the feedback they received from the public.
They're now holding a second and final set of public hearings on the proposed redrawn lines. The last hearing in New York City was held in Queens earlier this week. The final hearing is on February 16 in Buffalo.
There is a lot of controversy over the proposed new lines. Why?
Before the process began, there was a push for redistricting to be handled independently and in a non-partisan fashion. The governor said he wanted it. A majority of state legislators said they supported it. Good-government groups cheered them on.
But the legislature was unable — and some felt unwilling — to come to an agreement on an independent redistricting process. Without a new system, same process that's been used for the past three decades — where state legislators control the process and draw the lines for their districts — continues to be used.
Not surprisingly, then, these draft lines were roundly condemned: Democratic state Senator Martin Malavé Dilan, a member of the LATFOR committee, filed a lawsuit saying the maps don't represent the state's population, the NAACP held a rally saying the lines disenfranchise minority voters and Cuomo said he'd veto the lines he saw.
Are the lines that bad or is the process that ugly?
The answer is both. For example, in Queens, the Richmond Hill area has become a large Indo-Caribbean and Southeast Asian enclave. Under the proposed maps, this community sees itself getting sliced up into six different Assembly districts.
Good government and Asian community groups look at redistricting as an opportunity for a person from the community to get elected. If the current proposal in Queens stands, there's little chance of that happening for another decade.
So what happens next?
Two things need to happen. One, another version of the state lines will come out and the legislature needs to pass them. This could happen as soon as the end of this month.
When they do, it's up to Cuomo to decide whether to sign them into line or stand by his veto. The next set of lines LATFOR draws will likely look a lot different than they do now. Cuomo and lawmakers are trying to reach an agreement they can all live with. But there’s no set deadline for the lines to be finished, and if Cuomo chooses to exercise his veto, the entire process courts.
The second and more pressing issue is that the federal congressional lines — that is, the lines that determine representation in the House of Representatives — have yet to even come out in draft form.
Because of national population trends, New York has to lose two seats, and because of state politics it’s traditionally been one Democrat and one Republican. State legislators are responsible for drawing these lines as well, and there's no agreement on which seats are getting cut.
For a while disgraced former Rep. Anthony Weiner's old seat, now represented by Republican Congressman Bob Turner, was looking like a likely target to be axed. Democratic representative Maurice Hinchey's recent retirement announcement then made his district look vulnerable. But the truth is it's completely up in the air.
When do the congressional lines have to be finished?
New York has to lose two seats. That means the remaining 27 seats will grow by tens of thousands of people. Right now, incumbents, let alone potential challengers, are unsure what their districts will look like.
The state’s primary election for congress is set for June 26, meaning that all lines must be drawn well before this date.
But if someone wants to challenge an incumbent, not only does she have an incredibly short time frame to enter the race, in some cases the challenger won’t even know which seat she’ll be able to run for, or if the seat will even exist.