Redistricting: What Is the Deal in New York?

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One of the most important issues at stake in the Census data arriving today is how it will affect the redrawing of Congressional, state senate and state assembly district lines in New York.

Why? Ideally, a legislative body’s districts should all contain the same amount of people, in order to ensure that all individuals wage an equal amount of political power with their vote.

So every decade, as designated by the U.S. Constitution, we do a Census count of the number of people in any given district to see if their populations have shifted significantly. We know that  people relocate every day, and over a period of ten years people move to different areas within their state and others still go to new states.

The data is used to re-draw New York’s Congressional and state legislative district lines. If the population in any state plummets in relation to the other 49 states in the union, that state will most likely lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, which has a fixed number of 435 seats which get reshuffled every 10 years.

This year, that happened to New York. In December, the Census bureau released New York's population for 2010 - 19,421,055 people - and we learned that we’re losing two Congressional seats: Dropping from 29 to 27. So, the state’s Congressional districts will definitely be redrawn. The equation is simple: 19,421,055 apportionment population divided by 27 districts = 719,298 people in each district, but where to place those districts on the map is the fun part of redistricting.

On the state legislative level, there are 150 seats in the New York state Assembly and there are 62 seats in the New York State Senate. The number of Assembly seats is not going to change, no matter if there is a shift in population - 150 is written in the state constitution. It’s possible that the State Senate could add or subtract a seat this year when they redistrict - but it’s a complicated procedure that doesn’t happen often. What definitely will happen is that the location and shape of the state districts will change as we see where populations have grown or shrunk.

Due to the 1964 Supreme Count decision commonly referred to as “one person one vote,” all Congressional districts in a state have to be the same size as humanly possible - basically down to a margin of one person. However, each state determines the size and rules for its state legislative district differently - and the “one person one vote” rule does not necessarily apply. In New York, the state legislature - which holds the power to redraw districts - has the flexibility to exceed the margin by five percent in any state district. Let's take the Assembly for example. The redistricting commission will take the resident population of 19,378,102 and divide it by 150 to determine the size of assembly districts, which means that each Assembly district should have roughly 129,187 people. But the district map makers have have five percent wiggle room, remember? So they can add or subtract up to five percent--6,459 people to each district.

That wiggle room - and the actual shapes of the districts - is where the political maneuvering comes in. Adding 6,459 people to an assembly district could potentially dissipate voter power, or swing a district towards one particular political party. A split state legislature is charged with redistricting this year, with the State Senate currently dominated by the Republican party while the Assembly is dominated by the Democrats. Will they do it fairly? Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch wants to make sure they do - he is trying to get an "independent" redistricting commission set up to redraw districts. Before the midterm elections, Koch had a majority of the state legislature backing his idea, but now that there's been a political reshuffle, he's finding resistance.

Why so political? Because it's not just the numbers that determine the lay of the land - the Census data delivered today will tell us much more about who lives in what area of the state. With that data in hand, every special interest group in the state will be lobbying for a redistricting map that they feel will strengthen their political power. So 19,378,102 divided by the number of districts is just the beginning of how to draw the map.