JAMAICA, Queens — It is one of the most political and ugly parts of American democracy: re-districting.
Every ten years, politicians take the latest census data and try to use the new numbers to create a political advantage. But this time around, New York is aiming to take at least some of the politics out of it.
The stakes could not be higher, with the Empire State losing a congressional seat.
A group of independent commissioners — picked by Republicans and Democrats — are holding hearings in the community. Their goal is to create a map that focuses on keeping communities under the same representation, not gerrymandering certain groups for political purposes.
PIX11 News reporter Henry Rosoff went to one of these meetings and spoke with the people running the process, as well as some experts — and it’s not entirely clear that things are going as intended.
“This is the first time New Yorkers have ever had a chance to weigh in on their district lines in a meaningful manner,” Commission Chair David Imamura, a Democratic appointee, said.
However, party politics still appears to be at play.
The commission has so far released two proposals for comment.
“It’s not surprising that the two maps — called ‘letters’ and ‘names,’ instead of Democrat and Republican — show some partisan bias,” Susan Lerner of the group Common Cause New York said.
The Democratic leaning map, known as the “letters plan,” leaves the districts in NYC pretty much as they are now. This maintains some of the more gerrymandered districts as they are — see Nydia Velazuez’s three borough district, and Jerry Nadler’s district that is barely continuous.
The Democratic map also proposes making Long Island, a traditional Republican stronghold, more competitive. The districts of Democrat Tom Suozzi and Republicans Lee Zeldin and Andrew Garbarino would be elongated.
Upstate, where the state lost population, Democratic commissioners have proposed making districts less competitive and more groups by party preference.
The Republican leaning map, known as the “names plan,” would overhaul city districts by borough. It also attempts to create a second likely Republican district — aside from Staten Island — spanning across southern Brooklyn and Southeast Queens.
Long Island would stay safer for Suozzi, Zeldin and Garbarino under the GOP Commissioner’s plan. Upstate, the proposal aims to create more competitive districts.
Notably, both maps would make it much harder for moderate Republican Congressman John Kato to win re-election. Both maps also seem to change the Hudson Valley districts to the point where it is unclear if Democratic Congressman Antonio Delgado would be able to run without challenging another Democrat.
The commission will have to reconcile the two maps, which also lay out State Assembly and State Senate districts, by the Jan. 1 deadline.
If the Democratic-controlled legislature rejects the first proposal, the commission will get a second chance. If the Democrats reject the second proposal, they can takeover the process early next year,
Generally, what is happening is deep blue New York is at least attempting to be more fair to voters than states like Ohio and Texas.
Those states have created highly partisan maps dividing cities and communities of color through a process called gerrymandering , which is designed to give the GOP huge advantages.
Michael Li with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program said the temptation will be for Democrats in states like New York to ignore the commission and respond.
“I think that’s a real danger and a weakness in the way that this commission was designed,” Li said. “It’s not completely free of partisan entanglements. It’s only partially free, and dependent on the good will of the legislature and the governor.”
New Yorkers can further explore the new proposed maps here.