The state Legislature plans to vote on the set of new legislative and congressional district maps it’s tasked to draw sometime next week, after rejecting two competing versions drafted by a state-sanctioned commission.
The vote will follow a month-long effort by community groups urging lawmakers to allow New Yorkers to weigh in on the map proposals. But the groups have been met with silence, and it’s unclear if they'll get a hearing before the vote, despite support from one member behind the task force drafting the maps.
Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said the maps drawn by the Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment will be voted on at an undetermined date next week, in a joint statement. The two leaders cited a shortened political calendar to expedite the vote.
By voting next week, election boards across the state can adapt election districts to the new maps, allowing candidates to begin the petitioning process in March, as required to get on the ballot.
The fast-tracked vote would appear to cut the community groups off from offering input on maps that can define political power in communities over the next decade. That power translates to funding decisions, and how elected officials campaign and govern.
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“The irony of the situation is redistricting is supposed to encourage civic engagement and civic empowerment, and it is antithetical to that notion of democracy when the public can't even weigh in on maps or control their lives for the next 10 years,” Elizabeth OuYang, an activist with Asian Pacific American VOICE Redistricting Task Force, said.
The group has organized a letter-writing campaign demanding a hearing and enlisting other representatives of communities of color around the city, such as Latino Justice PRLDEF, Woodside on the Move, and Citizen Action. The campaign builds on the work the group has carried out since last year around the legislative map-making process, which happens once every ten years following the latest U.S. Census Count. The groups, mainly representing communities of color, testified at several information sessions and hearings led by the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC), a ten-member panel composed of Democrat, Republican and independent appointees.
Many groups urged the IRC to keep communities under at least one legislative district as a way of boosting their power, and ultimately, elect a representative who reflects a neighborhood’s dominant demographics. Under state and federal rules, maps must be contiguous, composed of roughly the same number of people, and must not discriminate against historically marginalized populations.
The IRC first convened last year as part of a 2014 state constitutional amendment to draw maps free of partisan gerrymandering. Yet, despite summer-long listening sessions that was followed by hearings in the fall, the group could not agree on a singular map outlining the new boundaries.
That lack of agreement led to infighting and the submissions of two different map proposals drawn separately by Republican and Democratic commissioners this month. The maps were rejected by the Democratically-controlled state Legislature.
Under state law, the rejection allows the joint Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, which had drawn the 2012 maps, to redraw the new versions. The task force is headed by Assembly Members Kenneth Zebrowski of Rockland County and Philip Palmensano of Steuben County, along with state Senators Michael Gianaris of Queens and Andrew Lanza of Staten Island. Zebrowski and Gianaris are Democrats; Palmensano and Lanza are Republicans.
The community group said none of the four lawmakers have responded to a recent email laying out their concerns. Palmensano’s office sent out an automated email simply confirming receipt of the letter.
A spokesperson for Lanza, however, told Gothamist/WNYC he’s in support of a hearing. The rest of the lawmakers did not respond to a request for comment.
Even with Lanza in support of a hearing, there are fears any map coming out of the Assembly and Senate, in which Democrats hold a supermajority, will be severely gerrymandered, effectively re-injecting politics into a process intended to be free of it. State rules do not require lawmakers to hold such a hearing.
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On Tuesday, the coalition of groups sent another letter to the task force requesting a hearing as soon as the maps are created. In it, the group said it hopes feedback that community activists offered at previous IRC meetings and hearings last year can inform its current work.
“While the timeline is very tight with spring primaries approaching, we believe given the imperative for public engagement in this final stage of the 2020 redistricting process, this request can be accommodated, especially if the hearing were held virtually,” the letter states.
Several of the groups are looking to pitch a “unity map,” designed to serve as a counterpoint to the IRC’s maps, which the groups said had divided communities of color. These maps seek to keep communities of color under one district.
Such a move would be beneficial to Asian communities, which have seen their numbers rise over the last ten years, according to the census. At a virtual rally on Tuesday, Judge Marilyn Go with the Asian American Bar Association of New York, said the unity map would empower community groups.
“Because the unity map better protects the Voting Rights Act for Asian Americans who have historically been grossly underrepresented in the New York State Assembly and Senate due to callous redistricting, we support the unity map,” Go said.