In September, the panel tasked to redraw Assembly, Senate, and congressional lines failed to agree over how the lines should be carved for the next ten years. So they took the extraordinary step in releasing two maps to the public.
It was a surprise move by the Independent Redistricting Commission, which formed after a 2014 change to the State Constitution. The release of two maps appeared to undercut the commission's aim to take politics out of the legislative mapmaking process. For years, the State Legislature had been in charge of carving the maps, which was followed by accusations of gerrymandering that favored one party over another.
Now, after nearly two months of the draft maps release, New York City residents will get the chance to weigh in on how much those maps increase or dilute political power in given neighborhoods at a series of in-person hearings that begin next week. The first hearing is scheduled for the Bronx on November 9th, with the last one held in Queens on November 17th (a full list of times and locations can be found here).
The commission--composed of Republican and Democrat appointees, along with two independent commissioners--spent the summer soliciting feedback on how the initial maps should look like, mostly taking into consideration how residents identified their neighborhood. The idea was to ensure that these neighborhoods are not divided into separate legislative districts, particularly for marginalized communities of color.
But advocates were shocked to see the commission release two versions of each map, with stark differences in the congressional set. The changes were evident most in upstate counties where the Democrats' version effectively split GOP-favored districts.
Republican appointees blamed Democrats for misinterpreting some of the guidance on creating these new maps, accusing them of potentially violating a federal law requiring all congressional maps to hold the same number of people per district.
"I can not help but be disappointed and regret the fact that we were not able as a commission to actually put a single product together," Jack Martins, a Republican appointee and former state senator, said at the time of the maps release on September 15th.
Democratice appointee Eugene Benger, however, said that the maps are simply just the first set. "Everything at this moment doesn’t have to be perfect," he said at the same hearing.
Since last month, the IRC has been holding hearings on the proposed maps, with the first meeting taking place at Buffalo State College.
"We are zeroing in on commenting on two different maps," said Elizabeth OuYang, an advocate with Asian Pacific American Voting and Organizing to Increase Civic Engagement's redistricting task force.
OuYang has been testifying on behalf of South Asian communities grossly impacted by gerrymandering over the last ten years. Over the summer, she spoke at a listening session held by the IRC in hopes of informing their decision on design of the maps, hoping so-called "communities of interest" can be held together as a way of creating political potency among South Asian communities.
While she was generally satisfied with the look of the Democrats version of the maps, OuYang hopes the IRC will consider placing Manhattan's Chinatown under one Assembly and Senate district, which the current draft maps do not.
"Manhattan Chinatown cannot be divided," OuYang said. "It's been attacked on all sides with gentrification, discrimination, et cetera. It has finally been kept whole since [the] 2000 redistricting and it needs to stay whole."
OuYang also commended Democrats for removing multiple Assembly districts under the Queens neighborhood of Richmond Hill, but criticized the Senate maps that showed three Senate districts covering the neighborhood.
Once the hearings wrap up, mapmakers will take the solicited feedback to help influence their decisions on the next second draft of the maps. But advocates fear commissioners will once again be unable to reconcile the maps, and release two versions again. This can open the door for the State Legislature to reject the maps and draw their own version. This would heavily favor Democrats who control both the Assembly and Senate.
But Democrats might not be able to easily pass these maps as intended following the rejection of Ballot Proposal #1 this past general election, which would have removed a rule that two-thirds of legislators per legislative body needed to vote in favor of the maps if one party controlled both houses. Because the proposal was also rejected, the IRC can submit the first set of draft maps to the State Legislature no later than January 15th. If those maps are rejected by lawmakers or vetoed by Governor Kathy Hochul, the IRC has until February 28th to submit a second set of map proposals to lawmakers. The tight schedule could shorten the time candidates will have in seeking required signatures needed to get on the June 2022 primary ballot.
As for the IRC, OuYang hopes for a more transparent mapmaking process in the creation of the second draft maps compared to the first round.
"We would like to be to listen to their negotiations because how could they say--both sides--when they released the first set of maps that they listened to the community, they heard their concern when they came out with two very different maps," OuYang said. "And so we need to know and have credibility in the system to know what took place."
OuYang hopes the legislature will put the community first before their own interests.