“Redistricting Means Power”: Everyday New Yorkers Get A Say In Carving Out Their District Lines

For the first time in state history, everyday New Yorkers will get first dibs in how they define their state and federal legislative districts, part of a decennial process previously left only to lawmakers. That process begins with outlining neighborhood borders, which advocates hope can ultimately increase the clout locals have with their representatives.

The months-long effort, known as redistricting, is being organized for the first time by the Independent Redistricting Commission. The 10-member group—with four appointed by Democratic state leaders, another four by Republican leaders, and two chosen by the commission—formed after a 2014 referendum vote that sought greater input from New Yorkers over how to reshape their lines.

Such an arrangement has drawn scrutiny from voting advocates who believe the commission is not wholly independent since members are appointees and don’t have a final say over the line. David Imamura, chair of the IRC, did not respond a request for comment over the body’s independence, but told Capital Tonight he’s actively avoided being lobbied by any state or federal lawmaker over his role.

Redistricting involves utilizing the latest census data collected every ten years to ensure an equal number of residents are populated in each district; the latest census tract data will be available August 16th.

On Thursday, the group held its first of three virtual hearings, starting in Queens, where more than 100 residents spoke.

For years, sitting state lawmakers had a direct say over how those legislative lines were redrawn, allowing them to box out their constituents. This process was criticized for allowing legislators to manipulate lines in their favor, derisively labeled “gerrymandering.” In some instances, one neighborhood fell into multiple districts, effectively splitting voting blocs with unified priorities. This effectively eroded political power from those neighborhoods, particularly in immigrant communities, diminishing their voices.

Many advocates who spoke sought to forge districts that kept ethnic communities under one Assembly, Senate, or Congressional district.

A highlighted portion of the 14th Senate District that appears like a jigsaw puzzle.

The 14th Senate District in Queens appearing to be shaped like a jigsaw puzzle. Screenshot of Independent Redistricting Commission hearing

“Redistricting means power,” Elizabeth OuYoung, a coordinator with Asian Pacific American Voting and Organizing to Increase Civic Engagement, testified.

In an interview with Gothamist/WNYC ahead of the hearing, OuYoung said the current structure of some of these districts has diluted the power of neighborhoods. “So anywhere from fighting for a trash disposal can on your street to advocating for a community center is problematic,” OuYoung said. “Even a candidate running for office can ignore you if you are a sliver, or a minority, or gerrymandered district […] because your community has been divided.”

Rehan Mehmood, director of health services for the South Asian Council for Social Services, found South Asian neighborhoods have been grossly divided. He pointed to the neighborhood of Flushing, which is currently covered by 25th and 40th Assembly Districts. Mehmood believes Flushing should just be covered by one district. Such a move would further increase the chances of electing a lawmaker who reflects the demographics of the neighborhood.

Jerry Vattamala, an attorney with the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, pointed out that Asian enclaves in Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park have seven Assembly districts, presenting barriers for the ethnic voting bloc in electing an Asian to the Assembly.

“This was the case 10 years ago. It was the most divided neighborhood in the entire city and this cannot stand,” Vattamala said. “Given the changing demographics of New York City, Asian Americans continue to be severely underrepresented in New York State Legislature and in Congress.”

A divided neighborhood has led to less civic engagement, as Martha Ayon of Rego Park has experienced. Her neighborhood is represented by two state senate districts, resulting in a lack of attention to her district, she said.

“My neighborhood has struggled to organize a civic association or democratic club because crossing the street leads to different elected representation,” Ayon testified.

Similarly divided districts have been found in parts of the Bronx, particularly in the neighborhood of Bedford Park, which is represented by three senate districts. This has resulted in little attention paid to residents fighting against overdevelopment in the small neighborhood.

The commission will draft their preliminary maps by September 15th and then go through another round of public hearings to solicit feedback before going to the State Legislature. The body will review the maps during the start of the legislative session in January to either approve or reject them. The maps must be in place by March next year so candidates can begin collecting signatures to get on the ballot in June 2022.

Though the State Legislature will ultimately decide on the district lines, OuYoung hopes the commission will respect the will of voters and operate without any intervention by elected officials.

“It remains to be seen if they can put aside any type of partisanship to do what the voters ask,” OuYoung said.

Virtual hearings for Bronx and Manhattan residents will take place on Monday, July 29th at 2 p.m. Brooklyn and Staten Island residents will get the chance to testify on Thursday, July 29th at 2 p.m. To learn more about the process, click here.