Will NYC Get Its Fair Share of Representation in the State Senate?

| November 3, 2011 3:30 PM

Latino day laborers wait for their day's work near the Williamsburg Bridge in Brooklyn. Votes for the State Senate in this section of Brooklyn count for nearly 9 percent less than the average vote upstate. MetroFocus/Sam Lewis

There’s Spanglish graffiti festoons on 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 New York State 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.

Interactive map showing population per district for the Republican-controlled New York State Senate and the Democratic-controlled New York State Assembly.

 

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.

“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.)

Read the full post at The New York World.

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