NY Redistricting: Things to Watch

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Mapmakers shape the world — nowhere is that truer than in redistricting.

We live in one of the states where redistricting is done by the state legislature, and not a special nonpartisan commission (although that could change! Read on to learn more). The results were decades of gerrymandering — very creative line-drawing to create favorable maps for political players — to cement divided rule in Albany, with Democratic members in the Assembly getting steadily safer and Republican majorities in the State Senate retaining control despite a growing Democratic advantage statewide. The results were constant gridlock in Albany, an out-of-control state budget, and temporary fixes to get us by from year to year while our state’s problems festered.

However, even gerrymandering has limits, and New York is an increasingly Democratic state whose Democratic areas are gaining population while the Republican areas lose it. And now it’s time to draw new lines — new lines that will even out populations so districts are once again about the same size, population-wise. Even an aggressive program of gerrymandering from the State Senate’s Republicans may not be able to keep them in power for too much longer.

So, here’s a round-up of things to watch this cycle:

  • Gov. Cuomo’s proposed redistricting reforms
  • The end of prison-based gerrymandering
  • Straight-up regional shifts in population
  • New York’s loss of two seats in Congress

Read more…

I. Cuomo Reforms

Gov. Cuomo has introduced a bill to create a nonpartisan commission to create the new maps, instead of the legislature. The bill would also put in place much stricter limits on how much district population sizes can very — in the past, the Senate Republicans have stretched population variance as far as it would go to pack more people into Democratic districts and fewer into Republican districts. Finally, the bill would codify a set of principles/priorities for drawing districts that must be observed (a priority for preserving communities, an explicit ban on drawing districts for the benefit of particular incumbents or candidates, etc).

Senate Republicans say they’re too busy dealing with the state’s budget to deal with Cuomo’s bill just yet — we’ll see how well that excuse holds up.

II. The End of Prison-Based Gerrymandering

New York is one of several states that has eliminated this practice in the last decade. Even without Gov. Cuomo’s proposed reforms, this can dramatically change the landscape upstate, where prisoners have been counted as residents of the district where the prison is for redistricting purposes, despite the fact that they are really members of their own communities back home, not the community where the prison is.

Without the tens of thousands of prisoners in prisons upstate artificially boosting population numbers, a number of districts will probably have to change dramatically. Ahmed will have more on this in a blog post tomorrow!

III. Regional Population Shifts

The Center for Urban Research’s nifty map shows how in NY state’s congressional districts, there have been marked shifts in population. In this map, darker shades mean the district is more undersized — the truly red areas are districts that are estimated to be more than 10% smaller than the “target” size.

As you can see, outer Long Island and the mid-Hudson Valley seem to have done pretty well, while further upstate and Western New York seem to be the big losers. Of course, it won’t just be a matter of slightly redefining the borders of all the existing districts, because…

IV. We’re Losing Two Congressional Seats

New York is now smaller relative to the entire country, because other parts of the country (mainly in the south and southwest) have grown  a lot. As a result, since the number of House seats is fixed at 435, we’re going to lose two seats. In December, Nate Silver predicted that a two-seat loss would mean the loss of one seat upstate or in WNY and a probable loss of a seat down here in NYC as well, despite the fact that NYC has grown around 5% since the last census.