Gotham Gazette

The Place for New York Policy and politics

A cynic -- or maybe just a careful observer of politics -- might see the last half century of New York's history as one long and varied effort to make sure that the city has not gotten the political clout that it deserves. Starting in the 1950's, (and probably even before) the census routinely undercounted the population of New York. Finally, the 2000 census seems to have counted more accurately. Now, the New York State Senate is in effect repealing the results of the latest census.

The senators are doing this through their plan for redistricting. Though supposedly carried out with public input, incumbents and their staffs actually do the redistricting in old-fashioned backroom deals. The redistricting process, which is required to reflect the shifts in population within the state every ten years, is often compared to making sausage -- meaning, most people would rather not learn all the disgusting stuff that it is made of.

The 2000 census showed a marked increased in population downstate, and a decrease upstate. For almost a year afterward, all official redistricting plans kept the senate at a total of 61 seats, its current number. The problem,from the GOP majority's point of view, was that these plans put the senate at risk of switching over to a Democratic majority. One of the seats would have had to be moved from Republican-responsive upstate to Democrat-happy New York City, and one or two seats in Long Island would have had to change their borders to include someportion of the city.

So, the new plan put forward -- officially by the bi-partisan New York Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, commonly known as LATFOR, but actually by the staffs of the senate and assembly majority party -- increasedthe senate's size to 62 seats. The new seat was created in New York City. This sounds fair, but, in fact, it represents a very cunning way to dilute New York City's power in the new Senate, and maintain GOP control.

Adding an extra seat meant that virtually all seats upstate and in Long Island remained about as they were in 1992 -- maintaining them, in other words, as Republican strongholds. This also made a few other dirty tricks possible, including destroying the secure senate district of Eric Schneiderman, making him face a primary by an Hispanic candidate in a now more heavily Hispanic district, and putting Noach Dear in a predominantly African-American district.

More egregiously, every single upstate district now has fewer than the average number of people in a district, which is called under populated, while every downstate district is now over populated. For Congressional redistricting, no such deviations are allowed; the plan must reflect the principle of one person, one vote. In other situations, courts generally accept a total deviation of 10 percent from the "ideal" population. The New York State Senate plan has a total deviation of 9.78 percent. Remember, these deviations are not random -- all the districts that have too few people are upstate, while all those that have too many are downstate. The spokesperson for Senator Dean Skelos, the head of the senate's redistricting task force, has defended the population deviations by telling the New York Times: "It's legal, what more do you want?" But this obvious dilution of New York City's political power may not be legal at all, in fact. A pending federal court case will decide this.

Aside from repealing the Census, the GOP majority did some very creative districting in Nassau and Suffolk County and in Westchester and the Bronx. In Nassau and Suffolk, the plan split the black and Hispanic areas into several districts, so that they would not influence the outcome of any election. If they had not done this, minorities would have had a reasonable chance ofelecting a candidate of their choice, but this could also have meant that some of Long Island's current nine GOP Senators would have been re-elected. In the Bronx and Westchester, the plan redrew Senator Velella's district, extending it further into Westchester, and reshaping it as a kind of warped donut (though it was givena more imaginative description in a previous article on redistricting in Gotham Gazette). This was done to corral all the available whites into his district. The hole in Vallela's donut is an African-American area in Mount Vernon and the Bronx attached by a corridor to another African-American area in the Bronx. Both of the standard ways of diluting minority voting strength,which I outlined in a previous column, are on display here -- "cracking" (splitting minorities across several districts) and "packing" (piling them into a just a few districts).

The 2000 census results seemed to mean that New York City would gain influence in the State Senate. Due to careful line drawing, the elusive power seems once again to have slipped away. New York City might well have to wait until the next census to receive its due from New York State politicians. And, if history is a guide, one can predict that every effort will be made to assure that this does not happen.

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.