The ripple effects of the New York State Legislature’s redistricting decisions are hitting New York City’s immigrants and minority groups. And, as political candidates are gearing up for the coming primary election, Republican and Democratic judges have continued the fight over voting lines in the courts.
Michael Li, redistricting expert and senior counsel with Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, said that the state’s process for drawing voting lines isn’t “truly independent” to begin with because it’s unofficially based on allegiances to political parties. “That is a recipe for the system breaking down,” said Li.
In 2020, amid an insane election year and a global virus outbreak, the state managed to complete the Census count. Though a congressional seat was lost, they soldiered on with the redistricting process which follows the census count. The NYS Independent Redistricting Commission convened to redraw voting lines for Assembly, Senate and Congressional districts. The point is to maintain adequate representation of people in government.
The commission consists of 10 bipartisan members who spectacularly failed in agreeing on one map of the state. Since the commission was created out of a desire to reform the process in 2014 this was basically the first time they’d had the opportunity to go through a census and redistricting.
Li said that it’s really a historical “gentleman’s agreement” in New York where the Senate will be Republican and the Assembly would be Democratic. For the first time, the Assembly, Senate and Congress were all majority Democrat.
“Democrats have the aptitude to gerrymander but they haven’t had all of New York and so I think there was at that point a high likelihood that the commission would not get its job done. People dig in and wear their partisan hats. The process would deadlock and that kicks it to the legislature,” said Li.
Congressional map images provided by Redistricting & You site under the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center project. (Contributed photo)
Since Republicans and Democrats on the commission couldn’t agree, everything was turned over to the state legislature to make final decisions on a rushed deadline in January 2022. Immigrant communities in the city were especially concerned about the lack of public input.
The Asian American Bar Association of New York (AABANY) were among the most vocal in demanding a public hearing before the state legislature voted on redistricting maps that will affect people’s voting rights for the next decade.
Liz OuYang, coordinator of the redistricting task force at AABANY, said that they were definitely outraged by the lack of community input. She said that since the state and congress handle different issues it’s hard to compare the gains and losses on the part of communities.
The final maps divided Hispanic/Latino and Asian neighborhoods previously in Congressional District 7 under U.S. Rep. Nydia Velázquez. But the state senate maps created a new district in primarily Asian communities in Bensonhurst and Sunset Park and a mostly Hispanic district in Queens. There was also a majority Asian state assembly district created in Queens.
“We would have preferred that Manhattan Chinatown remain with Sunset Park in Nydia Velázquez’s district because they share more in common economically, regarding language access, and just socioeconomic data. However there were some gains in the state senate and assembly district,” said OuYang.
Congressional District 11 now covers Brooklyn’s Sunset Park and very “liberal” Park Slope as well as the usually Republican-leaning neighborhoods in Staten Island. The seat is currently held by Republican U.S. Rep. Nicole Malliotakis. “They were trying to get rid of the only Republican seat in New York City,” said Li, “and they had to move some of the districts around. I think that’s what it is, and creating more opportunity for minority groups would have interfered with the political gerrymandering and protecting white incumbents.”
In Congressional District 10, Manhattan’s Upper West Side was lumped in with Brooklyn’s Orthodox Jewish population in Boro Park. This protects the incumbent U.S. Rep. Jerry Nadler, said Li.
City Councilmember Alexa Avilés in District 38, overlapping with part of the new congressional 11 district, has been pretty outspoken on the impacts the redrawn voting lines will have on her constituents. “The communities of Sunset Park, the Lower East Side and Bushwick that make up the core of today’s #NY07 are culturally and historically connected. The creation of this district in the 1990s was a Voting Rights Act win that advanced Latino representation,” tweeted Aviles.
Aviles, several councilmembers, and more than 60 residents also signed a letter to Senate Speaker Carl Heastie and Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, urging them not to split up their communities.
“We are a coalition of leaders who represent communities in Sunset Park, the Lower East Side, and North Brooklyn. We are writing to urge the Legislature to not divide communities that have been united in the same Congressional District for 30 years–and keep these three neighborhoods within the same district,” said the letter.
The letter stated that the majority-minority district was joined by decades of important cultural ties, and it was imperative to keep the communities together. Especially, since there’s been a rise in anti-Asian hate and discrimination against immigrant communities, said the letter.
Steven Romalewski is the director of The City University of New York (CUNY’s) Mapping Service and Center for Urban Research. He leads the Redistricting & You online map that tracks redistricting stakeholders and analyzes proposed district maps in New York.
Romalewski pushed back on concerns of political gerrymandering in Congressional District 11.
He said that an important change to note in the new district configuration is that the number of people who voted for now-President Biden in 2020 were far fewer in the old district and there are many more of them in the new district.
“In 2020, President Trump won that district with 55% of the vote,” said Romalewski. “All other things being equal, if the new district lines had been in effect during the 2020 presidential vote, Trump would have lost that district by almost the same margin.”
Romalewski said, based on CUNY’s analysis of voter patterns, that in the Brooklyn part of the district the number of Biden voters went up to about 80% while votes for Trump were cut in half.
Requests for comment from Malliotakis and former Democrat U.S. Rep. Max Rose, who is running for his old post and had lost to Malliotakis in 2020, were not returned by post time.
In the beginning of April the Brooklyn Eagle reported that State Appellate Division Judge Stephen Lindley declined to delay the primary elections because of the state’s redistricting maps. This comes after Republican State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister ordered that the “Democrat controlled” maps should be redrawn and are “unconstitutional.”
As of now, a scheduled appeals court panel has another hearing on April 20, but could eventually end in the state’s highest court as both parties offer up new legislative maps, said the Brooklyn Eagle.
“However the courts rule, what is important to us is that communities of interest we identified remain as whole as possible in any political subdivisions that they draw,” said Ouyang.
“The reality is that no map would make anyone happy,” said Li.
Ariama C. Long is a Report for America corps member and writes about culture and politics in New York City for The Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting: https://tinyurl.com/fcszwj8w