Viewpoint: Vitally important for voters to be engaged in New York’s redistricting process

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Viewpoint: Vitally important for voters to be engaged in New York’s redistricting process
Karen Rubin, Columnist

There’s an interesting dilemma confronting New York State and Democratic-controlled states around the country: whether to conform to the ideals of independent nonpartisan redistricting, or counterbalance what Republican-controlled legislatures are doing.

Indeed, Republican-dominated state legislatures are not only gerrymandering with evil precision – so that politicians choose their voters rather than voters choosing their representatives – but also implementing rules to block voter access to the ballot while granting themselves new powers to nullify elections should their candidates still lose (in other words, legalizing voter suppression and election subversion).

Gerrymandering results in “safe” seats so that electeds don’t actually need to respond to the wants, needs or demands of their constituents but only to their big donors.

It also fuels the extreme partisanship – the intractable, uncompromising divisions between parties – that has resulted in total paralysis and dysfunction in Congress. This in turn has resulted in extreme policies – banning mask-wearing, abortions, and even giving water to those waiting for hours to vote.

The way Republicans gain that outsized power despite actually having fewer voters, is gerrymandering. (In Nassau County, even though Democrats outnumber Republicans 383,709 to 331,282, Republicans dominate the County Legislature 11-8). And besides inflicting unpopular policies at the state and local level, it means they have outsized representation in Congress and Electoral College (which is why you can win by 3 million popular votes but lose the presidency because of 77,000 votes spread among three states).

And that affects us all – who has the majorities in House and Senate, Speaker of the House and Senate Majority Leader, who chairs the committees. We can see it in the votes for Voting Rights, gun violence prevention, Women’s Reproductive Health and now the constant use of the debt ceiling to hold America hostage.

Since the last redistricting after the 2010 Census, New York State amended its state constitution in 2014 to create an independent commission to be responsible for redrawing the Congressional and State Legislative districts after the census.

And since the last census, despite the fact the state population actually increased by 823,147 to 20,201,249 (when population was expected to stay the same and cost the state two of our 27 Congressional seats), we were 89 people short of retaining one of our Congressional seats.

So far, New York State’s first at-bat with an “independent, nonpartisan” commission is a failure, with the commission unable to come to a consensus, so offered two maps reflecting partisan objectives.

The Republican map is blatantly partisan in that it keeps the number of Congressional districts in the Republican-dominated rural areas upstate (including keeping mostly intact District 23, held by retiring GOP Rep. Tom Reed), while taking a seat from Long Island, effectively pitting Tom Suozzi against Kathleen Rice.

Yet, the upstate population in those Republican-dominated rural districts declined, while the population downstate, in New York City, Long Island and urban areas (Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester) had population increases.

Indeed, Long island’s population grew 3.1%, to 2,921,694 (despite the cap on SALT deduction), with the minority population rising by 8.9% (and now accounting for 40.2% of Long Island’s population, up from 31.3% in 2010); according to US Census data. New York City’s population increased by 629,057 to a record 8,804,190.

Jack Martins, co-chair, had the gall to issue his own statement on behalf of his five Republican members, attacking his Democratic counterparts: “This commission created by the New Yorkers in 2014 was to put aside partisan difference, working independently as one commission to develop a consensus map. We agreed to do so and today our colleagues appointed by the majority members of the legislature turned their backs on that commitment refusing to confer and come to common ground.” (You can well wonder if he would have expressed such outrage if Republicans controlled the Legislature.)

(An excellent analysis: “Takeaways from New York’s (competing) redistricting draft maps” https://www.cityandstateny.com/policy/2021/09/new-yorks-first-draft-2022-redistricting-maps-have-been-released/185374/)

It is vitally important for New Yorkers to be engaged, involved and participate in this process.

The maps have been published at the NYIRC.com site, and the commission has scheduled 14 public hearings throughout the state before submitting maps to the state Legislature (by Jan. 1-15, 2022).

The Nassau County hearing is on Nov. 22 at 4 pm at Nassau County Community College (unclear whether it will be in-person or virtual or both). Nassau County residents can register to testify at the hearing and/or submit comments or maps at www.nyirc.gov where you can also see past testimony, the draft maps, etc. , and zoom virtual meetings.

(Information on the IRC process and tips on how to testify can be found on the League of Women Voters NY website: https://lwvny.org/redistricting-2021-people-powered-fair-maps-nys/)

If the state Legislature rejects the maps or the governor vetoes the maps, the commission must be notified within 15 days but no later than Feb. 28. If the Legislature rejects the second set of maps, the Legislature can amend the implementing legislation and redraw the district lines on its own.

Now here’s the dilemma: even though Texas had sufficient population increases to get two additional Congressional seats and 95 percent of that gain came from (Democratic-leaning) communities of color, suburban and urban communities, Texas is creating maps where the number of majority-white districts increases; it “packs and cracks” communities so that none are competitive and the votes from cities and suburbs of El Paso, San Antonio, Austin, Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth are drastically diluted, according to Saumya Narechania, States Director for AOTL (All on the Line).

Ohio (the state that no Republican can win the presidency without) similarly is gerrymandering with abandon. The Republican-controlled redistricting commission voted on party lines to adopt state legislative maps so gerrymandered even Republican Governor Mike DeWine questioned their constitutionality: they are skewed so that Republicans would likely win 72% of state Senate seats and 68% of state House seats – enough for a super majority – even though Republicans won 54% of the statewide vote in the last decade, according to AOTL.

The consequence contradicts the ideal of “one person, one vote” (the NYIRC ideal) and even the clichéd “free and fair election” or monumentally hypocritical “election integrity”.

So yes, what happens in Texas, Ohio, Arizona and Florida doesn’t stay there. Like the California recall, the Texas abortion ban, Georgia voter suppression legislation and Arizona election nullification, these all have national implications for civil rights, with voting rights being preeminent from which all the rest flow and the ability to nullify the will of the majority (climate change, gun sense, tax reform, reproductive rights) without accountability at the ballot box.

Significantly, “Almost as soon as she became governor, Kathy Hochul indicated that she was in favor of ensuring the maximum number of Democratic seats. And a few state senators from New York City have already said that they won’t commit to the lines drawn by the commission,” Rebecca C. Lewis and Zach Williams reported at cityandstateny.com.

There should be a test for appropriate district lines and maps rejected if the results of voting should yield the same percentage representation between the parties in state legislatures and Congress – except that would be after the fact, when the minority in control of the levers of power, the damage done and the results impossible to undo.

Groups like All on the Line, the National Redistricting Action Fund, and Marc Elias are gearing up to challenge such rigged maps in court.

But the more effective antidote (especially given the fact that state courts are equally partisan and the Supreme Court has already given the green light to gerrymandering) is for voters to be actively engaged and participate at all levels of redistricting: Congressional, state legislative districts and county.

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