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Drawing the Line in New York State: In Search of Equitable Redistricting Prepared by Uniondale High School and The Wheatley School students, Doyin Akintobi, Jesse Manor, Kharolann Pierre, Candice Sejour, Daniel Wicks (Teachers: Dr. John Staudt and Ms. Adeola Tella) This Issue-in-Brief is part of 2010 Renew New York, sponsored jointly by Hofstra University, Newsday, and Cablevision. See Renew New What is Redistricting? York website at Students from 10 high schools used the model of the National Issues Forums in preparing briefs and forums. Hofstra coordinators: Michael D’Innocenzo, Andrea S. Libresco and Bernard Stein (in association with the Hofstra University Center for Civic Engagement, interns: Kayla Rivara and Samantha Rashid).

Introduction As defined by the New York State Legislative Task Force on demographic research and reapportionment, the United States constitution requires that congressional and state legislative district boundaries be redrawn every ten years, reflecting population shifts detected by the federal census. This process, referred to as “redistricting,” is undertaken by the state legislature.

The ultimate objective of redistricting is quite similar to that of the census. It is the legislature’s responsibility to zone and rezone areas based upon population in order to insure representation based on equitable population distribution. According to Henry J. Stern, former New York City Parks Commissioner and currently chairperson of “NY Civic” (a group working with former Mayor, Ed Koch’s “New York Uprising” to seek reforms in state government), the problem with redistricting is that it is being used by many representatives to help themselves, to destroy


political opponents, to draw district lines to ensure re-election and to provide special favors for friends.

Redistricting in the past has most frequently been used to protect the interest of

incumbent lawmakers (see New York Civic web site).

For instance in Rochester, Ms. Susan John had an extra slither of land added to her zone because she knew it had more registered voters in the political party on whose line she ran. This increase of voters in her party obviously boosted her chances for reelection.

Another incident of

gerrymandering was when Assemblyman Mr. P. Boyle of Suffolk County had his home residence strategically drawn out of the district he represented; he then either had to run for office in a new district or feel forced not to run at all. Advocates for change say that playing games with citizens has not benefited anyone but those who draw the lines. The politicians forget why they were elected to office in the first place, thereby, corrupting the system further and leaving young people and future generations the burden of fixing the government.

For years the process of redistricting has been used as a campaigning strategy, rather than serving a major purpose of insuring that funding could be distributed “justly” based on population. Critics contend that we need to change the way redistricting is executed because communities are not being given the chance to reach their full potential. Redistricting has made it possible, they argue, for corrupt politicians to become people who take what they want when they want without much accountability.

Those who contend that the current system is satisfactory argue that New York has been an outstanding state in our nation for centuries under the current system of redistricting which is completed after every 10-year census. Because New York is such a large and complex state, it is not surprising that the process is sometimes complicated or that it reflects political partisanship. After all, political parties play the major role in presenting candidates to voters, and the drawing of election district lines helps to insure that representatives will reflect party platforms. That is one good way to hold representatives and political parties accountable for their actions. Nearly all the states in the US follow the same approach as New York. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it!”


The Language of Redistricting Gerrymandering – A form of redistricting in which electoral district boundary lines are modified solely for electoral purposes. This process usually results in the unusual shapes one may see in the map of an election district. Gerrymandering is used to achieve electoral results in favor of a certain political party or to help a particular group such as a racial, religious, or class group.). The term gerrymandering usually has a negative connotation in that it is seen as one party trying to unfairly control an entire district in order to gain success in elections. However, there is a positive view of gerrymandering by people who believe in minority-majority districts, those in which a minority group, such as African Americans or Hispanics, is the majority group in that district, and lines are drawn to maintain that numerical advantage so members of the most populous group are likely to be elected. Packing and cracking – Packing and cracking are different strategies involved with gerrymandering. The goal of packing is to concentrate as many voters of one type into a single electoral district to reduce their influence in other districts. In some cases this may be done to obtain representation for a community of common interest, rather than to dilute that interest over several districts to a point of ineffectiveness. Cracking involves spreading out voters of a particular type among many districts in order to deny them a sufficiently large voting block in any particular district.

Incumbent advantage – the ability that a person who is already an office holder has over his or her challengers in order to gain reelection. Gerrymandering, packing, and cracking are tools used in order to gain an incumbent advantage, by those already in office who draw the new district lines every ten years based on the census.

Redistricting - A process used to change political borders. This usually involves changing electoral districts and constituency boundaries in response to census results. In most states, 36 of them, state legislature has the primary responsibility for creating a redistricting plan. Five states carry out congressional redistricting by an independent or bipartisan commission. Iowa and Maine give independent bodies authority to propose redistricting plans, but preserve the role of


legislatures to approve them. The other seven states have low populations and therefore only have a single representative for the entire state. However, they have more districts in their state legislatures, and they need to reapportion them with the census every ten years.

Community of Interest- A community of people connected by common interests, grievances, way of life or other similarities that justifies treating them as a class or group for legal purposes. The most obvious examples are race, ethnicity, and religion, but might also include a district in which ninety percent of the residents are farmers. It is not easy to define particular groups by geographical area

Some Options to Consider Option 1: The System has Worked and is Still Working Those Who Favor Maintaining The Current System Of Redistricting Say: •

The system helps create stable political borders throughout the state.


The people have a voice in the current system by electing the legislative officials who draw the political district lines. •

It’s cheaper to leave the system as is.

Social, racial, economic classes are complex bases for districting and are not in the longterm interest of democracy.

The current system may not be ideal, but it has worked for centuries.

It gives vibrancy to the role of political parties in shaping policies for the state.

Those Who Oppose The Present System For Redistricting Say: •

There is no balance in the system; one party can have control over the forming of political districts for a long time.

Elections will be less competitive when incumbents are provided with safe districts. In recent years, only a tiny percentage of incumbents lose when they run for reelection.


When they go to Albany they can be there for life if they wish under the current system. Instead of a kind of House of Representatives the New York legislature has become a kind of “House of Lords.” •

New York’s campaigns are so lopsided that in 2004, 25% of state legislators had no opposition for re-election, and 60% were essentially unchallenged because their opponents all raised less than $1,000 for their campaigns. Elections have not been much different since then.

The district lines of New York legislature take on very unusual shapes reflecting little except the power of the prevailing party.

The current system does more to help incumbents of the dominant party than the voters.

Partisan gerrymandering changes the kind of people who have a chance to win elections; it is almost impossible for moderates or independents to ever be elected when political parties draw the district lines.

Option 2: Democracy Deserves an Independent Commission for Redistricting The problem with redistricting in New York State is that the incumbent officials making the decisions usually benefit themselves from their choices. New computer technology which can help to predict how even minor changes in district boundaries can affect electoral outcomes has allowed lawmakers to create increasingly irregular districts for their own advantage. Incumbents are drawing opposition voters out of their districts to ensure reelection.

We must urgently fix

this system of redistricting or have to wait 10 years for the next U.S. census. An independent commission must be set up to draw the district boundaries so that the public interest is served.

Such a commission would be either bipartisan or nonpartisan.

Members would oversee

legislators in drawing district lines. The commission would only take into consideration criteria that would be beneficial to the public. That would include focusing on geographical contiguity, party registration balance to foster competitiveness and sustaining the Voting Rights Act which requires special districts with majority populations of minorities. This process can also be much


more transparent than the current legislative process, thus encouraging the public to take a greater interest in this issue and in government.

Incumbents will not be able to bend the system to their own advantage, as in the past. New candidates with new ideas will be better able to compete for seats. The most difficult - and important - factor in establishing a commission would be to convince the lawmakers to vote for such a plan. This is only likely to be achieved by pressing the issue during election season. Henry Stern, leader of the reform group, NY Civic, says we should demand that candidates include their position on how redistricting should be done in their campaigns for office. Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, working with Stern, in the group he heads, “New York Uprising” has taken a strong step of labeling several politicians as “enemies of reform.” He is trying to bring public pressure on candidates to accept new directions before they are elected. All labeled politicians are of the majority party, which is a general pattern of reform efforts, because those who have the power seek to maintain it. Ideological opponents to this reform system of redistricting appear to be small in number, or, at least, not so vocal in their opposition to moving in a new direction. It should be noted again, however, that the public has had little or nothing to say about how New York’s district lines are drawn. How many voters are aware that the lines are often drawn to their disadvantage, in order to serve incumbency protection?

In Arizona election districts are drawn by a 5-member commission. The members may be partisan, but not more than two can be from the same political party. Several other restrictions are included to try to make the commission independent. The members may not have run for or been appointed to office in the last three years, or have worked as a paid lobbyist. The members are chosen by the Arizona Commission on Appellate Court Appointments.

A law has been passed to implement an even more elaborate system in California. It specifies a 14-member commission, with application open to the public. Five members must be of the majority party, 5 of the second largest party, and 4 must be nonpartisan. The members must not have changed parties in the last 5 years. 30,000 individuals applied to join the commission. 25,000 of those qualified to fill out a supplemental application, of which 5,000 did so and continued with the process.

An applicant review panel will then narrow the pool to 60


candidates. The 60 must consist of 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 20 Independents. The majority and minority leaders of the assembly and senate may each remove 2 members from each group, narrowing each to 12. Then, 8 members are selected at random, who select the final 6 members. It sounds complex but the goal is to insure balance, fairness and independence.

Iowa has a similar system in which lawmakers retain some control but oversight on redistricting is provided by a nonpartisan committee. In Iowa, a 5-member nonpartisan commission is established with the Assembly Majority and Minority leaders each choosing two members to serve on the committee. Then, the fifth member is elected by the four members already in place. The members must be registered to vote in the state of Iowa but may not hold a partisan political office or political party office or be related to or employed by a member of the United States Congress or the Iowa Legislature or be employed by the Congress or Iowa Legislature itself. The commission aids the Legislative Service Bureau in the process, and makes copies of the bill available to the public. Here, as in a few of the other states, significant steps are taken to build public confidence that the redistricting truly serves citizens rather than protecting incumbents without sufficient accountability. It is no accident that Iowa has a higher rate of competitive elections than the national average.

By examining the process and success of other states, New York may hope to achieve similar results by adopting a progressive system of equitable redistricting.

Those Who Support Independent Commissions For Redistricting Say: •

Elections become more competitive

Increased voter turnout is likely when elections are competitive and democracy is better served when citizens participate in the political process

New officials can be elected; they are likely to have new ideas, and may be more in touch with the electorate than incumbents who are not seriously challenged in campaigns.

Districts will be more compact and geographically contiguous; voters will not be stripped of their sense of community identity

The process will be more transparent


Districts will comply with the Voting Rights Act, which requires, when possible, sustaining districts that are composed of a minority majority so that members of that minority have reasonable chances to be elected.

Those Who Oppose Independent Commissions To Do Redistricting Say: •

The public loses its influence on redistricting process through their curent elected officials

It is extremely difficult to create a truly nonpartisan commission, as the complex processes indicate in the states that have tried this.

Experienced elected officials will use their incumbent power to block a plan that is unfavorable to their best interests?

A nonpartisan commission will require more funds, not a good idea at a time of major state budget deficits.

It is not necessary to change a system that is used throughout the country and that has served citizens for centuries. Reform efforts should be directed at other issues.

Option 3: The Prison Issue in Redistricting When discussing the issue of redistricting it is necessary to look at the question of whether and how to count the state’s prisoner population. The overwhelming majority of prisons are located in small towns in upstate New York. According to the current system these towns are allowed to count these prisoners into their local population. By increasing the population of a district, fewer actual voters gain more power in that they affect the election of representatives (while prisoners count for apportionment of elected officials but do not vote for them). So, is this really fair to people living in Long Island or in the city? What about the case of a small town upstate that doesn't have a prison? One possible solution to this issue is counting prisoners in the populations of their hometowns. Another solution to this problem is not counting prisoners at all. People who believe in this approach contend that people who can't even vote should not be counted in the population in any district.


On August 3, 2010 it was announced that when districts are redrawn next year prisoners will be counted in their HOME districts. According to a website,, "The measure, already passed by the assembly, was included in the budget package that now awaits Governor Patterson's signature.” That bill was signed into law on Aug 12. According to the same article, federal funding will not be affected by this change because the bill does not change the core census data. According to the organization “Prisoners of the Census” there are currently seven legislative districts in New York State that are only able to meet the minimum requirements for a representative by counting prisoners in to their population. This solution will put a stop to some past gerrymandering, but it might also severely weaken the political power of some small towns and rural counties.

(If you Google “counting prisoners” and “NYS

redistricting,” you can find lots of facts and strong statements for and against this bill.) So, how should we evaluate the pros and cons of the system that is most likely to be used as of 2011?

Those Who Want To Stop Counting Prisoners Where They Are Held In Jail Say: •

Some of the undemocratic practices of gerrymandering will be ended - packing prisoners who can’t vote to increase representation of those who live in the district (whose “community of interest” is likely to be very different from that of the prisoners, many of whom are minorities from urban areas).

More power will be given to districts downstate, where the majority of the prison population comes from. Therefore, the majority will have more equitable representation.

Because of a tradeoff in passing the law, this change in redistricting will not affect the amount of money distributed by the federal government; the policy of federal funds based on census population (including prisoners) will still be in effect.

Those Who Want To Continue To Count Prisoners Where They Are In Jail Say: •

Small districts will either lose power to a point where their influence is diluted (fewer representatives from upstate, rural areas), or some (seven) will actually not exist


anymore. They will be merged into other districts, diminishing the representation they were accustomed to for a very long time. •

With expansion of the physical size of some districts to make up for the loss of prison populations is likely to come a shift in which party holds the elected position.

The state government’s focus and policies will not take account of smaller dispersed rural populations (reflecting particular communities of interest) because most of the power will be shifted downstate towards Long Island and New York City.

Areas that are willing to be the location of prisons deserve some special consideration, such as being able to count prisoners in their population. After all, how many suburban areas would be willing to zone their land for prisons?

Senator Elizabeth Little of upstate New York says that inmates in her district use the same community resources as other residents (utilities, hospitals, water) and should be counted where they sleep.

Another upstate Senator, Joseph Griffo, contends that changing the way prisoners are counted is at odds with other census practices, namely that college students and military families are counted “where they sleep.”


Renew New York Issue-in-Brief: Drawing the Line in New York State  

Prepared by Uniondale High School and The Wheatley School students, Doyin Akintobi, Jesse Manor, Kharolann Pierre, Candice Sejour, Daniel Wi...