True/False: Rational Redistricting Is Possible

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

New York State Senate district map New York State Senate district map

»» Special Project: Send us your favorite oddly-shaped district! Instructions at the bottom of the article.

There's icing on the cake this year for the political party that takes control over the state legislature: the power to redraw districts for the State Senate, State Assembly and U.S. Congress that will last for the next decade. At the end of this year, the U.S. Census Bureau will have counted the total number of residents--and since New York's population has slightly decreased, it's expected the state will lose two seats in the House.

Redistricting has a seedy past in New York--on both sides of the aisle there's been great use of gerrymandering, which means divvying up the state into funny looking districts and jamming as many voters as possible belonging to your party into them.

In 2000, the last time districts were redrawn, Republicans controlled the state legislature, and Democrats accused them of using tactics like drawing the 20th U.S. Congressional district with a strange curve around Albany, in order to make it more GOP-centric.

There's nothing inherently undemocratic about shapes. But some of the districts in New York are so outrageously drawn that they've attracted nicknames like “Abraham Lincoln riding a Vacuum Cleaner.” (That's the 51st state senate district.) Blair Horner of New York Public Interest Research Group calls assembly district 13 in Nassau County "the claw."


Hakeem Jeffries, the Assemblyman from Clinton Hill and Fort Greene, Brooklyn, claims his house was purposely drawn out of the 57th assembly district in an act of retribution after he unsuccessfully ran for office in 2000. He was forced to move seven blocks south in order to run again. Jeffries would like to bring all of Fort Greene and Clinton Hill together in the 57th district--half of the Clinton Hill Co-op buildings are in his district, but the other half are in the 50th district, served by Joe Lentol. Jeffries was recently featured in the documentary film, "Gerrymandering."

Good government groups want to see an independent, non-partisan redistricting commission that would take the power out of the hands of legislators and prevent gerrymandering. NYPIRG recently put out a report on the issue. This movement is backed by former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, and Assemblyman Mike Gianaris is sponsoring a bill to create the commission before the districts are redrawn in 2011. They say they have gotten a majority of both houses of the state legislature to sign onto the bill. But a recent article in the Observer revealed that some of NY's U.S. Congressmen and Senators are uneasy about the plan--so it's unclear what will happen.

One victory for reformers in 2010 was the change in law that will result in prisoners being counted in their home districts (mostly downstate) rather than where they held in prisons (mostly upstate). Each district is supposed to have around 300,000 people, and Democrats say that shift in where to count 57,000 inmates will have a major effect on election patterns.

Special Project: You can see what your U.S. Congressional district looks like on this website. Find yours, or find one that you particularly like, and send us a link to the map --we'll post our favorites!


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Comments [16]

Ryan from NY-3

NY-3 on Long Island, home to Peter King (FiveThrityEight's chance of reelection: 100%), is what I call 'the Hourglass.'

It's about ten miles wide at the top and twenty miles wide at the bottom... At it's centre, it's one mile wide.

Oct. 07 2010 02:45 AM

I'm pretty sure that the current gerrymandered system is completely rational. At least from the perspective of those drawing (and benefiting from) the lines.

Oct. 06 2010 04:58 PM
Melissa from Ridgewood, NJ

I live in New Jersey's 5th congressional district, which Stephen Colbert once called "the toupee on the top of New Jersey's bald head." It is made up of two very conservative Republican counties (Sussex and Warren) and bits of Bergen County, including part of Ridgewood, my town. Although Ridgewood has a reputation for being conservative, it actually voted Democratic in the last two presidential elections. Unfortunately, we are represented by the last far-right Republican congressman in the Northeast, Scott Garrett, thanks to the fact that we're squeezed into a district with an overwhelmingly Republican base.

Oct. 06 2010 12:15 PM
Richard Finn from Babylon, NY

How does Jerry Nadler's district make sense other than he is a former Assemblyman. The district begins at West 72nd St in Manhattan and finds it way to Coney Island. The district map should be hanging at MOMA.

Oct. 06 2010 11:54 AM
Michael Benjamin from The Bronx, NY

The description of redistricting leaves unclear the populations apportioned in the legislative districts. Congress - about 750,000 people; State Senate - about 300,000; and State Assembly - about 128,000. In 2012, the number of Congressional districts will shrink from 29 to 27 and the populations in each will grow to about 800,000+. Nonpartisan redistricting really is anti-democratic. The Brian Murtaugh upper Manhattan assembly district alluded to by Mr. Dadey was invalidated by the federal court because it violated the VRA. The VRA trumps incumbency protection. Lastly, legislative seniority can be beneficial to a community and the state because experience and institutional memory are vital to the effective running of a legislative body. Constant turnover will only empower lobbyists and the professional staff who will have knowledge and resources. That would undermine our democracy.

Oct. 06 2010 11:49 AM

buffalo & rochester and their suburbs are divided among several districts. is this done to weaken urban power in DC and albany?

Oct. 06 2010 11:35 AM
phillip from Brooklyn

I was never a term limits fan until I moved to NY. It's people like you, Assemblyman Benjamin, who changed my mind. New York State is the poster child for the need for term limits, so your claim that non-partisan redistricting is "a disguised term limits plan" is a bonus.

You guys really don't get it, do you?

Oct. 06 2010 11:34 AM
Michael Benjamin from The Bronx, NY

I co-sponsored the law ending Prison-based Gerrymandering for the reasons mentioned. The state legislature should not cede its redistricting responsibility to an unelected body. It's a disguised term limits plan. There is no guarantee that the nonpartisan neutral panel will not have a bias. Having a civil discourse should be the aim. Representative democracy is the goal.

Oct. 06 2010 11:29 AM
Marc from Marc

Why have mapped districts at all? For example, why not have the whole of New York's congressional delegation determined by state-wide general election: the first twenty-nine past the post win? It would essentially rob lower density areas, like Upstate, but it would get the state legislature out of the district-drawing business, which let's be honest, is corrupt down to its marrow.

Oct. 06 2010 11:22 AM
phillip in brooklyn from Brooklyn

So what's the alternative to non-partisan redistricting? I assume that the pols would prefer the status quo. That's given us non-competitive districts from the federal level on down. That's not democracy.

There are 62 senate districts in NY. A handful, even in a volatile year election year like this one, are in any danger of changing hands. That's by design, folks.

Non-partisan redistricting may not be perfect - it almost certainly isn't - but it's likely to be a damn sight better than our current system, a system that is nothing more than built in incumbent protection program.

And this idiot Assemblyman is just trying to muddy the waters. "They don't trust the voters?"

Project much?

And don't even get me started about how the status quo hurts NYC...

Oct. 06 2010 11:18 AM
John from Manhattan

Computer programs could easily perform a fair and impartial redistricting. Probably result in, heaven's no, a more centrist district and marginalize the wackiness of the month, in this case the Tea Baggers.

Oct. 06 2010 11:15 AM
C. Tennyson from New York, NY

Here's the deal: there will ALWAYS be gerrymandering so long as we continue to elect our representatives from single member districts. It would make much more sense to create larger districts with more members and elect them by means of the transferable ballot. That would allow fewer votes to go to waste, for each district to be more perfectly represented, and would even foster the creation of viable third and maybe even fourth parties.

Oct. 06 2010 11:15 AM

The best suggestion I ever heard (quite possibly on WNYC) was to have the public vote to approve any redistricting proposal that the legislature draws up. Unfortunately, can never happen in New York because it gives The Public the power of oversight, and no politician would ever want that...

Oct. 06 2010 11:14 AM
Jean in Brooklyn from Brooklyn

My 11yo son saw a news item on redistricting on NY1 the other day and now says he wants to be "Abraham Lincoln riding on a vacuum cleaner" for his Halloween costume.

Oct. 06 2010 11:12 AM
Paul from Jersey City

My own congressional district, NJ-13, has the distinction of being one of the few non-contiguous districts. Despite being in one of the nation's most densely populated areas, it wanders through 4 counties and 17 municipalities. The prinicipal political reality behind its lines has been to make sure that Jersey City is split into three different districts, and its electoral weight diluted in the district to the benefit of the North Hudson Democratic machine.

Oct. 06 2010 11:00 AM
Paul from Jersey City

It's not my district, although I used to live in part of it, but I think that the Illinois 17th congressional district has to take the cake for the least organic, most gerrymandered district. It includes portions of 23 counties (although not any whole county), and must surely have the greatest perimeter to area ratio of any district in the nation. It was constructed to be a safe Democratic district in a Republican leaning area - and to keep Democratic leaning cities from diluting Republican districts.

Oct. 06 2010 10:51 AM

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