Proposed 63rd Senate seat would negate impact of counting prisoners at home

Last week saw two significant events in the ongoing battle to redraw New York State’s electoral map. In the first, the legislature’s redistricting committee formally subtracted the state’s 60,000-plus prisoners from the population count of the communities where they are incarcerated and instead counted them as residents of their districts of origin – a hard-fought victory for Democrats that was fiercely opposed by Republicans in New York’s closely contested State Senate. Days later, a lawyer for Senate Republicans released a memo calling to expand the size of the Senate to 63 seats, drawing howls of protest from Democrats.

An analysis by the New York World of the impact of the prisoner reallocation suggests one reason why creating a 63rd district is such a priority for Senate Republicans. With the loss of their prison populations, two upstate Republican districts shrink below the minimum legally permitted size for a State Senate district, bringing the total of such Republican-held districts to nine. One of those districts would likely have to be eliminated. But adding a 63rd seat to the Senate would cause every district to become smaller, thus protecting the Republicans’ one-seat Senate majority.

The latest turns in the redistricting battle hinge on the question of district size, an issue The New York World highlighted in October. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that there must be no more than a 10 percent difference between the largest and smallest district within a state. Previous redistricting task forces have worked within this limit to draw Senate districts upstate systematically smaller in population, or “light,” while packing downstate districts with larger populations. This has shifted voting power toward districts upstate that have consistently elected Republicans for State Senate, enabling the GOP to maintain a slim majority.

Since the 2000 census, the proportion of the state’s population in the greater New York City area has grown, while the upstate region has shrunk slightly. New York City and Westchester, which have 29 state senators, now have the combined population of 29.75 average-size districts, while the upstate region has 24 senators representing the population of 23.18 average districts. With prisoner reallocation, this disparity widens to 29.84 average-size districts in the New York City area and 23.08 average districts upstate.

The combination of the deliberately “light” districts drawn upstate and a decade of demographic change have resulted in large numbers of upstate districts falling below the legal minimum for population for a 62-seat Senate drawn based on the 2010 census population. Our maps show that currently 12 Senate districts — 11 of them upstate — are too small to remain viable. Two of these districts dropped below the threshold as a result of prisoner reallocation, while a third Senate district that had been too small became viable thanks to prisoners that were added.

Adding a 63rd Senate seat, as the Republicans have proposed, would significantly reduce the number of nonviable upstate districts – reversing the impact of prisoner reallocation with additional impact to spare. In a Senate with 63 seats, only seven districts as currently drawn would fall below the Constitutional threshold.

Scott Reif, a spokesman for the Senate Republican conference, said the proposal to add a 63rd Senate seat was unrelated to the effects of prisoner reallocation. “It’s not a matter of choosing to add to a Senate seat; we are required to under the methodology used in 2002, which was upheld by the courts,” Reif said. “We are required to add a 63rd seat based on population shifts.”

Democrats emphatically disagree, saying the Republican proposal rests upon an inconsistent and partisan reading of constitutional redistricting guidelines.

“When you look at it, it is ridiculous,” said Graham Parker, a spokesman for Sen. Martin Dilan (D-Bushwick), a Democratic member of the redistricting task force, regarding the Republican case for expanding the size of the Senate. “It’s not warranted by the census, and it’s not warranted by the Constitution. It’s just a power grab, and it’s an absolute egregious one.”

The districts affected by prisoner reallocation – which based on their 2010 census populations would have to be expanded in order to remain viable – are represented by Betty Little (R-Queensbury) and Patrick Gallivan (R-Erie). Little, whose district lost the most prisoners of any in the state, is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that seeks to overturn the 2010 law requiring the reallocation of prisoners. The district that became viable due to prisoners being added is also represented by a Republican, John DeFrancisco (R-Syracuse).

These shifts illustrate how even small changes in population can affect the drawing of legislative district lines. Overall, 60,708 prisoners have been subtracted from the population counts of the districts where they are incarcerated, and 46,003 have been added to their districts of origin. Nearly 15,000 prisoners were dropped from population counts altogether because the task force was unable to find or geocode their home addresses. The resulting number of prisoners being reallocated is relatively small: the net loss upstate is 38,404 residents, equivalent to about 12 percent of a single district in a 62-seat Senate, while the net gain downstate is only 20,112 residents.

The proportion of state prisoners with origins in New York City is now 48 percent, according to 2011 statistics from the New York State Department of Corrections. This represents a significant decline over the last decade: in 2005, 58 percent of the state’s prisoners were from New York City and in 2000 it was 66 percent.

Yet while the prison population is relatively small in numbers, the electoral impact of reallocating prisoners has sparked years of legal and political battles. In December, a judge in Albany dismissed the suit by Little and other Republican senators that sought to strike down the reallocation of prisoners as unconstitutional. Little and the plaintiffs are now appealing to New York State’s highest court, the Court of Appeals.

Reif said the party would continue to follow existing law on prisoner reallocation. “We are moving forward in redistricting process using current law,” Reif said. “If that law is deemed unconstitutional, we’ll take it under review.”

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