October 27, 2021

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What You Need to Know About New York’s Next Big Political Battle: Redistricting

Lawmakers across the nation are readying to redraw districts for members of Congress and state legislatures, as they do every 10 years following the U.S. Census.

The goal: Make sure Americans get equal representation from elected officials. In practice, the process known as redistricting is highly political, with parties battling for advantage by drawing lines that favor their candidates.

The stakes are high across the nation, with midterm elections for the House of Representatives approaching and Democrats holding a slim majority.

One certainty is that New York will lose one congressional seat. The state is embarking on the process with Democrats dominating both the state Assembly and Senate for the first time in decades. It’s also the first go-round for a new “independent” commission — though the ultimate say will go to elected officials already in power.

The commission is set to end its first round of statewide “listening tours” Thursday — the same day the U.S. Census Bureau is set to release block-level population counts.

Here’s what you need to know about redistricting in New York as the process gets underway.

What is redistricting, exactly?

Every decade, following the U.S. Census, states must redraw the boundaries of legislative and congressional districts to reflect changes in the population. Whatever lines state lawmakers come up with have to keep the population roughly equal between different districts, and also aren’t supposed to divide up racial groups to reduce their collective voting power. Those ground rules are shaped by years of court cases and rooted in the U.S. and state constitutions.

Ideally, the process ensures that the people who represent us in Washington and in Albany reflect the communities that elect them. Changed lines also have potentially major consequences for lawmakers, who might find themselves forced to campaign for reelection in a district largely different than the one they originally won in.

Where can I see current districts?

You can find out who represents you in the state Legislature and Congress here by searching, using your address. The map also shows district boundaries for the City Council, state Legislature and Congress.

CUNY’s Redistricting & You maps show the city’s current districts and the most recent population numbers, based on the Census Bureau’s 2019 American Community Survey.

What’s happening now?

A 10-member Independent Redistricting Commission is already at work. Appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders of the state Legislature, who get two appointees apiece (and in turn appoint two people registered with neither party), the members have been holding listening tours to obtain public input about their communities.

A series of regional hearings concludes today, with one additional statewide hearing on Aug. 15 where the public may comment. Once an initial proposal is unveiled in mid-September, the commission will hold several hearings around the state to solicit feedback.

New York State Capitol Building
Josefa Velasquez/THE CITY

The new commission replaces a legislative task force criticized for being beholden to the leaders of the Assembly and Senate, who previously controlled the process in their own chambers. That gave them wide-ranging power to protect incumbents or settle scores with their adversaries. Voters approved the change in 2014.

Members of the new commission cannot, within the last three years, have been a member of the state Legislature, Congress or hold statewide office, have been a state employee or state officer, a lobbyist, or chair of a political party. The spouses of statewide elected officials, members of Congress and the Legislature were also excluded.

The commission includes two professors, three lawyers, a veteran state employee and four former state legislators

How many seats are on the line?

New York State currently has 27 members in the U.S. House of Representatives, 63 state Senate districts and 150 Assembly districts. But New York will be losing one seat in Congress based on the statewide population count already released by the Census, in which New York fell 89 people short. In a political game of musical chairs, New York’s redistricting players will decide which seat will be eliminated — likely a Republican-held district upstate, given the Democratic party’s domination of the process.

How do these maps get drafted?

Official 2020 counts down to the block level are expected from the U.S. Census Bureau Aug. 12.

Working with staff and outside experts, the commission will utilize Census data to inform the map-making process. They can also use other information to help inform how the lines are drawn, such as voting history or election results, said Jeffrey Wice of the New York Law School’s New York Census and Redistricting Institute, who has been involved in the state’s process since the 1980s.

While the commission hasn’t yet decided what information, other than Census data, it will consider as it draws the new district boundaries, federal laws and the state Constitution offer some guidelines: The information used can’t violate the federal Voting Rights Act or protect incumbents, among other things.

2020 Census rally

Advocates call for counting all New Yorkers during the 2020 Census, April 1, 2019.
John McCarten/New York City Council

Proposed lines must go through public review — at least 12 hearings. The commission is likely to hear from voting rights groups, community leaders and nonprofit organizations to ensure that their communities remain intact during the redistricting process.

One such group is APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force, a collection of Asian American community groups that include Chhaya and Minkwon Center. Coordinator Elizabeth OuYang said that the redistricting process “means power” because votes are silenced when “you are put in a district where you are outnumbered by many who think differently than you.”

At least seven of the 10 commission members — including one member appointed by each of the four legislative majority and minority leaders — have to agree on the full set of proposed lines before the process can move to the next step: sending the draft maps to the state Legislature.

If seven members can’t come to an agreement, then the map with the most votes is submitted to the Legislature. This all has to happen no later than mid-January 2022.

Where do the state Assembly and Senate fit in?

The Legislature wields considerable power over the final results. With a two-thirds vote in each chamber, members can approve the new lines.

The Assembly and Senate can also reject the work of the Independent Redistricting Commission and draw districts on their own.

Once the Legislature agrees on the boundaries, it’s then up to the governor to either accept them or veto the maps — though any veto would likely be symbolic since a two-thirds majority vote is also enough to override the governor’s rejection.

Can districts be drawn however state officials want?

Not exactly. The 2014 changes to the state Constitution approved by voters say districts have to be compact and contiguous — no floating fragments — and have to have roughly the same number of residents. The lines can’t be drawn to “discourage competition” or to favor incumbents or political parties, and they cannot limit the participation of a racial group.

Drawing a district to give an individual, group or party an advantage is known as gerrymandering.

Many existing district boundaries zig-zag block by block, resulting in odd, puzzle-like shapes. Local examples include State Sen. Zellnor Myrie’s Brooklyn district and the adjacent district drawn in 2012 by Republicans who controlled the Senate to concentrate Orthodox Jewish voters — and subsequently won by Sen. Simcha Felder, a Democrat who supported continued GOP control.

What if the Legislature rejects the proposed map?

If state lawmakers reject the commission’s initial map proposals, then the commission goes back to the drawing board and comes up with a second round of proposals to present. If the state Legislature approves the plans, then they go to the governor for final approval and that’s the end of the process.

If state lawmakers, or the governor, reject the proposed maps twice, then the state Legislature can draw district boundaries themselves without input from the commission. Those lines are still subject to approval by the governor, though the Legislature would likely have enough votes to override any veto.

Sometimes, lawmakers fail to come to agreement — as happened a decade ago, when New York lost two congressional seats following the 2010 Census. After lawmakers stalemated, civic groups sued — and judges ended up deciding what the new lines should look like, eliminating the Brooklyn and Queens district resigned by Rep. Anthony Weiner following his sexting scandal and another in the Hudson Valley.

Can this redistricting process change?

Yes — and in fact some potentially significant tweaks could materialize before all is said and done.

This November, New York voters will be asked to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would move up deadlines for redistricting. It would require the commission to submit its first set of plans to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2022, instead of Jan. 15, and require a second plan if necessary to be sent to lawmakers by Jan. 15 instead of late February.

Proponents of the amendment argue that the changes are needed to reflect New York’s new primary date — which now occurs in June instead of September — since candidates will have to begin circulating petitions in early spring based on the new district lines.

The amendment also has the potential to help Democrats cement their supermajority in the state Legislature or at least keep Republican challengers at bay.

One change would make it possible for the commission to approve new lines with just seven members’ votes, regardless of party affiliation. Another would then allow the Legislature to pass new lines with a simple majority vote instead of two-thirds of members.

And if the Legislature rejects the commission’s plans twice, a 60% vote would be needed to approve lawmakers’ maps instead of the two-thirds approval.

The constitutional amendment would set the number of state senators in New York at 63 — heading off possible efforts to squeeze in new districts for partisan advantage — and require that incarcerated individuals be counted in their last place of residence for purposes of redistricting.

What about the City Council?

The City Council has a completely separate process, outlined in the city charter. In early 2022, the mayor and City Council leaders will appoint a 15-member bipartisan commission to redraw the city’s 51 Council district lines to reflect population changes. Following a series of public hearings and meetings, the commission will present a proposal to the Council.

City Hall

City Hall
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The Council can suggest changes, but the plan must ultimately be finalized and voted on by the independent commission itself.

The plan does not require a vote by the council or the mayor’s approval, said Wice, who served as a counsel for the city’s two most recent redistricting rounds. While Council members normally have a four-year term, those elected in the upcoming general election in November will have to run again in 2023 for the new, reshaped districts.