Explainer: Why You Should Care About Redistricting

Monday, February 13, 2012

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.


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Comments [6]

Helen Northmore from New York

I don’t think any political district should be designed to create surer bets on winning elections for any political party. The current re-districting being done by elected officials looks like the people already in the job, and their political affiliates, trying to determine the outcome of their elections, or at least stack the deck, before anyone casts a vote on Election Day.

As for Staten Island and Brooklyn 13th Congressional District, looking at Common Cause’s suggested map (at the website given below in an earlier post), it appears to follow some of the boundaries already suggested by our elected officials in the proposed 23rd NY State Senate District (posted by them at: that is, with one exception: the Common Cause proposed Congressional District does at least logically include Bay Ridge which is after all at one end of the Verrazzano Bridge.

The map that the NYS Legislature of both political parties is proposing doesn’t make sense either, geographically or population-wise. One Senate District in the state, the 60th which surrounds but excludes most of the city of Buffalo, has 61,921 fewer people in it than the 23rd Senate District of Staten Island and Brooklyn.

Population-wise the 23rd Senate District, with 332,657 people, is the seventh largest of all the 62 State Senate Districts. It also has over ten thousand more people in it than it’s neighboring districts. It is surrounded by the 22nd district in Brooklyn with 321,754 people, and by the 24th district on Staten Island with 320,917 people.

The data is posted at:
A caveat: at the latfor maps “View District Maps” webpage, it’s necessary to choose the link for each Senate district separately. If the link for the NYC map is chosen, it looks like the 22nd Senate District is in the Sheepshead Bay area. It’s almost impossible to detect on that map that more than half the district includes Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst. The borders of the 22nd State Senate District actually look something like an upside down dinosaur.

Feb. 14 2012 04:35 PM
Bob from SI

Also it is not compact. how do you have a distict that goes along a highway to reach a community that is not even homogenous to the community that you are linking

Feb. 13 2012 02:02 PM
bob from SI

Common cause district are political too. How can you link Staten Island with Coney Island on the Congressional District. We have a cultural link to Bay Ridge and Bensonhurst with a large Italian American population it may be decreasing but is still the largest in the country. This is a political attack to destroy the only district that elects a republican.

Feb. 13 2012 01:59 PM

Feb. 13 2012 11:17 AM
Robert from Roosevelt Island

The 32nd District seems to be the more preposterous. South Bronx East Harlem Upper East Side and here where I am in Roosevelt Island. That is one that needs to change very clearly.

Feb. 13 2012 09:14 AM
Tom Bergdall from Brooklyn, NY

Readers who want the shortest of short courses on this subject should simply compare the worst of the districts drawn by the Legislatature (at with the "reform" districts drawn by Common Cause (at, which are at once compact, understandable, and representative of the diversity of the State.

The current system is a disgrace. Any politician who supports it (including virtually every Senate Republican) should be tossed out on that basis alone.

Feb. 13 2012 08:44 AM

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