Balancing Act: Will 2012 be the year New York City gets its fair share of representation in the State Senate?

Spanglish graffiti festoons almost every corner. Cars with windows down blare Latin beats as they roll past a lone grocery cart full of trash, chained protectively to a street sign. This is Bushwick: more than two-thirds Latino, home to growing ranks of artists, and a neighborhood in which 32 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. This is also where votes for the State Senate count for nearly 9 percent less than the average vote upstate, thanks to an arcane twist of the process in which New York draws legislative district lines.

“It’s unfair to the city,” said Sen. Martin Dilan, a Democrat who represents Bushwick and serves on a redistricting commission that will draw new boundaries for State Senate seats in the coming months. “The way we avoid that is to make all the Senate districts equal to follow ‘one person, one vote.’”

For nearly half a century, the principle of “one person, one vote” has been a cornerstone of American election law. Each person’s ballot must count equally toward electing his or her representatives from the local to federal levels. But for most New York City residents going to the polls in state Senate races, one vote of theirs is not equal to one from Buffalo or Niagara Falls. Previous redistricting task forces have drawn Senate districts upstate systematically smaller in population, or “light,” while packing downstate districts with larger populations. This has shifted voting power toward whiter districts upstate that have consistently elected Republicans for State Senate.

The redistricting commission Dilan serves on could undo this. But he’s the only one of six commission members from New York City, even though the city has 40 percent of the state’s population. His district in northern Brooklyn is the second most highly populated in the state, and he has been the commission’s loudest advocate for ending the practice of drawing district lines in a way that leaves New York City voters shortchanged.

The last redistricting process ended in 2002. The result was a plan in which a senator from New York City represented an average of 250,443 eligible voters, while the average senator from upstate had just 223,403 constituents. Added up across dozens of districts, the imbalance left upstate with one additional Senate seat it would not otherwise have had – a seat that has likely enabled the Republican party to maintain its majority in the Senate this year. Republicans currently hold 32 seats; the Democrats, 30.

As the state legislative task force on redistricting, or LATFOR, develops a new map for 2012, regional inequity in voting strength promises to be one of the main flashpoints. The New York World has calculated, based on the adult population of Senate districts across the state in 2010, that the average State Senate vote in New York City now weighs 5.7 percent less than a vote cast elsewhere in the state.

See our interactive map showing population per district for the Republican-controlled New York State Senate and the Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly


“This has been a longstanding problem in New York, and demographic shifts have exacerbated this problem,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of the nonpartisan advocacy group Common Cause New York. “It dilutes votes, it overweighs votes upstate, it underweighs votes downstate.”

The shortchanging of New York City has not occurred by accident. Internal memos from the redistricting process completed in 2002 show that Republicans in the State Senate deliberately drew districts of different sizes in different regions of the state in order to increase their representation. The result: an additional Republican seat upstate that preserved the party’s fragile control of the Senate.

“Our proposed redistricting areas upstate are already configured in such a manner as to draw districts light, to avoid migration downstate,” wrote Republican staffer Mark Burgeson in a July 2001 memo to Sen. Dean Skelos, then the head of the legislative task force on redistricting, and currently the Senate Majority Leader. (“Migration” here refers to the possibility that a new district would be created downstate, in areas that are more likely to vote Democratic in State Senate elections, if downstate districts were drawn with fewer voters in each of them.)

In a phone call with The New York World, Burgeson said he is now under a “special contract” to work with LATFOR in the current redistricting cycle, and he referred questions to State Senator Michael Nozzolio, the Republican co-chair of the redistricting commission.

In the lawsuit Rodriguez v. Pataki, Democrats and civil rights groups challenged the 2002 district lines, alleging that systematic under-representation of downstate voters violated the principle of “one person, one vote.” They lost in federal court. But in the years since the ruling, courts elsewhere in the country have also weighed in, and in one Georgia case rejected wide imbalances between representation of different regions within a state.

Jeff Wice, a lawyer for the New York Senate Democrats who has argued redistricting cases across the country, says it may only be a matter of time before the Supreme Court requires states to reduce the population disparities between districts. In the Georgia case, called Larios v. Cox, a judge struck down as unconstitutional a Democratic gerrymander that systematically overpopulated (and thus under-represented) rural districts of the state. “Several states are bringing down their deviations to preclude a legal challenge,” Wice said of the current redistricting cycle.

To avoid forcing a possible slapdown in the courts, LATFOR will have to take care not to overreach this time around. Task force members also have to watch out for Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has pledged to veto any plan from the current redistricting task force that he considers partisan – which election experts say would likely include any plan with systematic bias against one part of the state in favor of another.

These pressures may give New York City a fair shot at equal voting power in the State Senate. Says former New York City Mayor Edward I. Koch, who has been a vocal advocate for reforming the redistricting process, “We have the best chance in the last 50 years of changing the system this time around as we have a governor who’s willing to veto what the legislators are doing.”

New York City has a long history of under-representation in the state legislature. The state constitution, written in 1894 in a process dominated by rural interests, established a system for apportioning new districts that strongly diluted the voting power of densely populated counties. By the 1960s, New York City’s State Senate districts had up to 2.4 times the population of the smallest rural districts, and the city’s Assembly districts had as many as 11.9 times the population of rural districts.

A series of decisions in the 1960s by the U.S. Supreme Court — including the 1964 Reynolds v. Sims ruling, which set forth the principle of “one person, one vote” — put an end to wildly lopsided populations between different legislative districts. The Supreme Court later interpreted this to mean that there could be no more than a 10 percent deviation between the populations of the largest and smallest districts within a state.

But the 10 percent limit still left room for manipulation, an opportunity both major parties in New York State have seized. New York’s district lines are drawn based on convoluted rules established in the state constitution, which the legislature must apply to redistricting calculations. In 2002, the Republican majority in the New York State Senate tweaked this formula to create an additional seat in the Senate – swelling it to 62 members and adding a Republican-leaning district. The 2002 reapportionment more than doubled the deviation between the population size of the largest and smallest districts from 4.3 percent to 9.78 percent.

Population shifts over the last decade have increased this deviation even further, so that the smallest district now has nearly 77,000 fewer voters than the largest district. The most populous and therefore most under-represented districts are in Rockland County, Brooklyn and Manhattan, while those with the smallest populations and strongest votes are in Buffalo, Olean and Binghamton.

“Redistricting translates in the end into who is in power,” said Jerry Vattamala, an attorney for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, which submitted proposed redistricting lines to LATFOR earlier this month. “The Asian population’s increase in numbers, for instance, has to translate into increase in representation of our choice, a candidate of our choosing, because we have that ability now.”

Community advocates say that overstuffed districts are not the only ways in which New York City residents get their votes diluted. James Hong, the civic participation coordinator at MinKwon, a Korean community organization in Queens, noted that minority communities such as Asian-Americans in Queens are frequently split between districts.

New York City residents have also been shortchanged by the longstanding practice of counting more than 40,000 city residents incarcerated upstate as residents of upstate districts where their prisons are located instead of New York City. A new law requires prisoners to be counted in their home districts for purposes of drawing legislative boundaries and the current redistricting task force has pledged to comply, but it has not yet revised its data. Meanwhile, several Republican state senators have challenged the law in court.

Each of these issues affecting New York City’s representation promises to be heavily contested as the task force moves forward with its work.

Sen. Nozzolio, its Republican co-chair, said he had read the Rodriguez and Larios decisions but would rely on the task force’s lawyers to determine which standard was applicable.

“There are standards that the courts have set out,” Nozzolio said. “Whatever the plans are they will be in compliance the laws.”

Asked whether the task force might propose a plan in which New York City residents would continue to have Senate votes more than 5 percent weaker than that of their counterparts in the rest of the state, Nozzolio demurred.

“It’s too early to tell,” he said.


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