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Redistricting

by Andrew Beveridge, Jun 01, 2001
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After each census comes the dance known as redistricting. This time around, New York City and the surrounding suburbs accounted for virtually all the growth in New York State. Much of upstate actually lost population. The result is that, however the new districts are drawn, they will have to benefit New York City, giving the city more representatives in the New York State Senate and New York State Assembly, as well as preserving the city's proportion of the state's dwindling U.S. Congressional delegation. But that doesn't mean the process is going to be pretty. Redistricting, some observers have said, is like sausage; one does not want to watch what goes into making it.

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The number of members of the New York State Assembly who represent New York City will increase from 61 to 63, out of a total of 150 seats. The number of members of the New York State Senate must increase from about 25 to about 26 (some State Senators have districts that include only parts of the city), out of a total of 62 seats.

In the United States Congress, it will be more complicated. The total number of members of Congress in New York State must drop from 31 to 29. Much of that loss must come from upstate. But the 14 local members of Congress may see their seat dangerously redrawn for a different reason - the change in ethnic and racial composition.

In the past, Congressional districts were created in very odd shapes in order to carve out a district in which the majority of the population were "minorities." Thanks to recent rulings by the United States Supreme Court, when the 2000 redistricting gets into full swing, strangely shaped districts will be seen as "constitutionally suspect" and may need to be redrawn. These could include Nydia Velazquez's Congressional district, already redrawn for the 1996 election, which includes parts of Brooklyn, Queens and the Lower East Side; Nita Lowey's Congressional district, which swings down from Westchester through the Bronx into parts of Queens; and Elliot Engel's district, which puts together minority populations in several areas of the Bronx with portions of Yonkers, Mount Vernon and New Rochelle.

It is true that race or Hispanic status can no longer be the "predominant" or primary factor in redrawing districts, but a recent Supreme Court ruling indicates race can be considered. Voting rights specialists use the terms "packing" and "cracking" when describing the methods to dilute minority-voting power. "Packing" means corralling the minority voters in as few districts as possible, so that, while a minority candidate might be elected, the white incumbents in the nearby districts will not be threatened.

"Cracking" means splitting the minority vote among several districts so that they will be unable to elect a preferred candidate. Recently, "unpacking" of the state legislature occurred in New Jersey, a process upheld by the federal courts so far. African American Democrats in that state originally backed the plan. But the slate proposed by the Democrats in the mixed race districts, once the plan was accepted, is all white. How will all these factors affect such districts as the one represented for decades by Charlie Rangel, for instance, the dean of the Black Congressional Caucus who now finds himself in the second most heavily Hispanic district in New York State at just over 50 percent?

Redistricting is often an exercise in absurdity done behind closed doors. But there are some signs that this time around, it will at least be more out in the open. Governor George Pataki has budgeted three million dollars so that his office may become involved, and the new computer technology means that regular members of the community can at least theoretically learn what is going on, and make their voices heard.

Andrew A. Beveridge has taught sociology at Queens College since 1981, done demographic analyses for the New York Times since 1993, and provides expert testimony on a range of cases, including housing discrimination. The opinions expressed are his alone.




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