In 2021, New York’s redistricting was conducted through a newly formed commission created to draw the initial maps to be considered by the state legislature. This commission, failing to meet their duty, submitted two partisan maps. As one organizer stated, “It was supposed to be an independent commission free from partisan politics, but it wasn’t free of political power.” The districting process next moved to the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) which drew the maps that were adopted by the state legislature.
In February 2022, plaintiffs successfully challenged the LATFOR congressional and state senate maps in court. A special master was tasked with redrawing the maps ahead of the June 2022 primaries. Separately, the state assembly maps were challenged and the Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) has been tasked with creating new maps once again.
As of February 2023, the IRC released a draft map and held hearings in early 2023. However, the IRC submitted to the Legislature for approval a map that was nearly identical to the challenged LATFOR plan. In addition, there is a court case challenging the current congressional map requesting that they be redrawn by the IRC. As summarized by Susan Lerner of Common Cause New York, “The commission was an ultimate failure and it is unclear what its benefit was; the procedure was lousy from beginning to end.”
Community of Interest Story
During the 2011 redistricting process, in one example of extreme gerrymandering, the Richmond Hill neighborhood in New York City was divided into seven assembly districts. When the IRC deadlocked and LATFOR drew the maps, it reduced the number from seven to four assembly districts. When the court ordered the IRC to redraw the map, the IRC’s draft map of December 1, 2022, put Richmond Hill in largely one assembly district. This achievement was made possible through relentless advocacy and public pressure on the IRC by coalitions such as APA VOICE, however the IRC ultimately abandoned its own draft map for Richmond Hill that had overwhelming public support and submitted a map for the legislature’s approval that was nearly identical to the one LATFOR drew in February 2022, splitting Richmond Hill in four. During the community mapping process, the APA Task Force members took a walking tour of the Richmond Hill neighborhood and as one advocate put it: “We taught each other about our communities, which was absolutely fascinating…and it was an opportunity for us to understand the markers of the community.”
In another example, after extensive community advocacy, the new City Council District 43 created opportunities for Asian American representation. This new district was created with the strong recognition of the 43% Asian American population growth since 2010. Assembly District 49 remained a majority-Asian district. The creation of these districts led to the election of new Asian American representation.
During the 2021 process, Common Cause New York was a leading organization for COI training, analysis of demographic changes, and analysis of proposed maps. At the end of the cycle, they also drew congressional and senate maps. The New York Civic Engagement Table (NYCET) also worked with community stakeholders to educate community organizations on defining and mapping COIs.
Overall State Grade: D
Lack of public access options: The redistricting process was largely inaccessible to the public. The state offered limited language access despite the state’s diverse population. The commission offered to provide an interpreter if requested online in advance, which created an unnecessary hurdle for non-English speaking residents. All hearings were heard during business hours and information about hearings was not well-promoted. Further in the process, the LATFOR mapping process did not allow for public hearings and disregarded the hard work of community mapping. After the legislature announced the new congressional district maps, the APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force hosted an emergency rally to express the need for public input and the harmful silencing of community voices.
Lack of interest from the IRC: Although the state commission process mandated public hearings across the state, many advocates felt as though their testimony was disregarded. As one advocate explained: “The commission took substantial time with community members. Public hearings were long and they would ask detailed questions. But if these comments don’t have an impact on final maps, it is an exercise in publicity only.”
The IRC was poorly executed: As mentioned throughout this report, the IRC process did not meet the mission of creating a fair and equitable map-making process. Every organization interviewed for this report indicated that the IRC needs reform or a complete overhaul in the process before the 2030 redistricting cycle. If the current IRC process is maintained, it will be nearly impossible for organizations to mobilize communities to engage in this process.
- Community-based organization visibility led to critical victories: The largest Asian and Pacific Islander American coalition, APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force in New York, was able to garner extensive press coverage, community testimony at hearings, and community visibility in the courts. This hard work resulted in the Special Master citing the Task Force five times, more than any other community-based coalition, during the announcement of new maps. A newly created Senate District 17 that has 48% AAPI population led to the election of the first Asian American female state senator. In addition, State Assembly District 30, which contained 49.5% AAPI led to the election of the first Filipino American member of the state legislature. Outside of these APA VOICE Redistricting Task Force victories, the other community organizations felt they did a great job despite the constant challenges in the process.
- Translation services need to be accessible: The available translation services were not well-publicized on the state redistricting website, and, if a person were to locate the request form, they had to complete a form in English. This posed a challenge for non-English speaking communities and reduced the trust among non-English speakers that their voices would be heard. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) critiqued the lack of language access options in a letter that received some positive response from commission members. Many of the community-based organizations (CBOs) had to publish translated materials and act as interpreters due to the lack of accessibility from the state.
- Accessible data and analysis are important for education: Interviews cite free tools like Dave’s Redistricting App and CUNY’s Redistricting & You website mapping tool being value additive for their outreach. Common Cause-NY led community mapping workshops to familiarize activists with the principles of redistricting and mapping to assist communities in participating in redistricting. The NY Civic Engagement Table (NYCET) released a tool guide sharing helpful training information for the various mapping tools available to the public. The NYCET noted that the many free mapping tools were easy for the public to use and prevented a reliance on costly services like Maptitude. Relatedly, some groups expressed interest in having access to a community mapper outside of a shared demographer used for traditional unity maps.
- There is a need for more community education and training: State advocates indicated that community members needed more education about the New York redistricting process and what opportunities the public had to impact mapping decisions. As stated previously, there was a significant barrier in accessing bilingual support through the state redistricting website. Often a community organization translated for them because they lacked faith that the state would provide reliable access to translation. As such, CBOs should budget for oral and written translation.
- New York needs broad reform of the state redistricting process: All participants in this report agree that the current version of New York’s redistricting commission is flawed and needs reform to function in 2031. One advocate noted that Syracuse has a well-functioning citizen commission that could be a model for statewide reform. Some solutions may be found in legislation; however, most advocates feel that a campaign to create a truly independent redistricting commission is needed. This level of change would require a constitutional amendment and at least five years in planning to get a new commission question on the ballot. New York does not have a culture of ballot referendums during elections so there would also need to be a great deal of community education and mobilization.
- Comprehensive and extended funding beyond a redistricting year is critical: A significant portion of the funding for New York organizations went to good government and legal groups. While this was necessary, there may have been gaps in funding to local community organizations. These are the groups that do education, translation of materials, and organizing of rallies and public hearing testimony. Because the 2021 IRC process is still ongoing in 2023, community groups have been expected to stretch redistricting funding while managing competing civic engagement priorities, therefore, there is a need for increased local funding to ensure community participation. Further, several groups indicated that the role of CBOs should be elevated moving forward; these groups had to educate and organize communities amidst the COVID-19 pandemic and competing electoral campaigns.