Redistricting in New York: Same Process, Same Outcome – So Far

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Erika RosenbergDespite pledging in 2010 to reform the process of drawing new lines for state legislative districts, lawmakers instead employed the usual process where they themselves make the maps. And the results, released a few weeks ago, were entirely predictable: The proposed maps would likely enhance the current partisan dominance in each house.

In Rochester, this preserves what is an unnecessary fragmentation of the City of Rochester into multiple state Senate districts—three in the current map and four under the proposed maps. It seems indisputable that the interests of an aging urban center and its residents differ sharply from those of suburban or rural communities. The current and proposed maps significantly dilute the voice of the City and its residents. Adding a fourth district leads to an even more curious outcome: the reconfigured District 61 puts the University of Rochester, one of the key drivers of the Greater Rochester economy, into the same district as the University of Buffalo. And the new lines for District 59 places RIT into another Erie County-dominated district. As Tom Richards, Mayor of Rochester, observed at the recent Rochester redistricting hearing, the state’s new economic development model is a competitive one—while we may have common cause with Buffalo in Washington, we certainly compete with Buffalo in Albany.  See the City’s analysis here.

In the proposed Assembly maps, the City is similarly carved up into several pieces which, if no worse than previous maps, is certainly no better. The configurations of the districts don’t respect natural boundaries, such as the Genesee River, or logical neighborhood boundaries. District 138 reaches awkwardly from Chili and Henrietta north and east and then west in a shape—perhaps appropriately—resembling a question mark.

An analysis by the New York World and Center for Urban Research of the likely political outcome of the proposed maps finds Senate Republicans would be poised to increase their precarious two-seat majority by two seats and Assembly Democrats would gain four seats. This would lead to more deeply entrenched majorities in Albany, where minority parties already have so little power that it can be hard to understand why their members keep showing up at the Capitol. Republicans in the Senate got a taste of that life when Democrats briefly took control in 2009—they’re clearly not eager for a second helping.

The strategy at work is easily seen by the pattern of “packed” Downstate Senate and Upstate Assembly seats. To secure more Upstate (Republican) seats, the Republican Senate Majority pushed as many Downstate Dems as possible into their districts and created Upstate districts that have as few voters as possible. The table below summarizes the average deviation of district size from the number that would make them all exactly the same. Upstate Senate districts are, on average, 4% smaller than would be the case if all districts were the same size. Of 28 Upstate districts, one is exactly the target size and 27 are smaller.

The Democratic Majority is interested in concentrating power in its stronghold, Downstate. Upstate Assembly districts are “packed” instead—they are 2% larger than would be the case with even districts. Of 63 Upstate districts, 3 are smaller than the target size and 60 are larger.

Deviation of LATFOR Senate & Assembly District totals from equal size districts
Region Sum of Deviation # Districts Avg Deviation Avg % Deviation
NYS Senate LI 70,193 9 7,799 2.5%
NYC 284,730 26 10,951 3.6%
Upstate (355,458) 28 (12,695) -4.1%
NYS Assembly LI (3,489) 22 (159) -0.1%
NYC (194,570) 65 (2,993) -2.3%
Upstate 198,106 63 3,145 2.4%

Last year, in partnership with the League of Women Voters, we at CGR conducted our own experiment in redistricting, creating possible new boundaries for the Monroe County Legislature. That “hands on” experience provided insight into the challenges involved in the task. The redistricting process requires balancing multiple considerations: preserving “communities of interest,” such as towns, school districts, neighborhoods or demographically similar populations within a district; ensuring that districts are of relatively equal population size; and drawing compact and contiguous districts. These commonly accepted goals often conflict with one another, forcing difficult decisions about which goal receives top priority–even before any political considerations are taken into account. Despite the infinite variety of maps that qualify as legal under the state constitution, there is no perfect map.

Yet this year the good-government group Common Cause created an alternative set of legislative and congressional maps which provide a stark contrast to those proposed by the Legislature. CGR advised Common Cause, especially about how the lines might be drawn in our area, and the sole goal of the process was to preserve communities of interest within constitutionally valid districts. Discussions took place without regard to the likely political outcome. The Common Cause maps, which can be accessed from the project website, illustrate what an apolitical process can produce—coherent, compact and rational districts that keep people of similar interests together.

For example, in the Common Cause Senate map, the City of Rochester is kept in one Senate district and joined with the older inner-ring suburbs of Brighton and Irondequoit. Most of the next ring of suburbs makes up a second Senate district, while outer towns—where suburbia blends into exurbia—are joined with districts that include nearby counties. In its Assembly maps, the City must still be divided to achieve the population target, but the divisions better conform to how residents would appear to identify themselves, with the northwest section of the City joined with Greece, the west side combined with Gates, and the rest together with Brighton.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has called the Legislature’s maps unacceptable and promised to veto them. But conventional political wisdom suggests that instead he will reach a compromise, in which the maps are somewhat improved and Cuomo extracts an agreement from the Legislature to back another legislative or budgetary priority—perhaps significant reform of the state’s pension system or support for serious teacher evaluations throughout the state.

The Common Cause maps demonstrate one alternative outcome to the current process controlled by the Legislature–there are countless others. These maps show that an independent, politically blind process would likely result in districts that preserve communities of interest more effectively than a process that retains a strong political motivation. New York needs a different process. Until such a process is enacted, we would be naïve to expect elected officials to act against their self-interest and put process ahead of political survival.

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