Keeping Communities Together When Districts Change

Every day, people move to New York City, and others leave, but the trend is a net gain in residents. In June, the U.S. Census reported that since its 2010 count, New York City has grown by 70,000 residents, giving it more population growth than any other place in the country.  But it is the 2010 Census that determines how new lines will be drawn for City Council districts, a process that takes place every ten years. Based on the 2000 population count, today’s 51 districts each account for approximately 157,000 people.  In 2010, the Census counted a gain of 166,845 residents, for a population total of 8,175,133.

Residents are not merely numbers, however; they live as parts of communities with shared interests and concerns, often based on race, ethnicity and religion. This very aspect of their community identity is what makes the redistricting process in New York city a long and contentious one. Much is at stake: how the districts are drawn can predict who wins, or loses, an election.

View Proposed Redistricting Lines:

In this map created by The Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center/CUNY, the proposed new lines by the Districting Committee and the Unity Coalition can be viewed side by side with the current district lines. Click in bottom right-hand corner to select a plan. Graphic courtesy of the Center for Urban Research.

At the beginning of October, the city’s Districting Commission, a 15-member panel made up of seven members appointed by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and eight members by City Council leaders, began to hold public hearings in each borough so that residents and leaders can voice their concerns about the proposed new district lines. As is often the case when it comes to politics, some have called foul.

Indeed, how a City Council district is drawn could change the voting pool, which will then alter which candidate will appeal to voters there.

But, if districts are determined by mere numbers of bodies, why all the controversy? According to Sundeep Iyer, the principal qualitative analyst at the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan democracy and justice policy institute at New York University, at issue here is how to determine the way that voting bloc, or political body,  is represented.

“In many ways it’s the defining question in the redistricting process,” he said. “What are the appropriate factors to measure if it’s a success or a failure?”

The language in the City’s Charter, he said, indicates that when district lines are analyzed, many factors have to be taken into account, including keeping “communities of interest” together. They are determined by historical, racial, economic, ethnic and religious commonalities.

“The idea is we should keep like-minded common interests and associations together,” said Iyer, referencing the Charter.

Community Voices Heard, an organization that advocates for low-income New Yorkers, said the proposed lines create smaller city council districts in the Bronx and Queens, and favor larger ones in Manhattan. The group also warned that some voting blocs, such as East Harlem, could possibly be disenfranchised, according to City & State. At a hearing in the Bronx, residents and activists charged that the borough was being split up unfairly, and perhaps to fit into a political agenda.

“You have this political machine on the West Side that wants to control everything,” said Carmen Vasquez, an East Harlem activist, in an article in the NY Daily News. “This is a power move.”

The Unity Coalition, made up of Latino, black and Asian advocacy groups, also released a redistricting map for the City Council’s consideration. The Unity Map was created to maximize minority representation and to keep communities of interest together.

New York’s congressional and state assembly and senate district lines were redrawn in March, but the process was stalled by a lawsuit and in the case of the congressional lines, a fast-approaching petitioning deadline for the primary election. A panel of  federal judges had to intervene after lawmakers could not agree on new district lines, and imposed a court-drawn revision of the state’s congressional districts. The legislature did approve senate and assembly district boundaries though, which were signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo as part of a deal that included an agreement to modify the redistricting process after the 2020 census. 

When the federal judges had to step in to redraw the congressional lines, it was just one day before potential candidates could begin collecting signatures to qualify for a spot on the state’s congressional primary ballot.

Barring any lawsuits or an inability of the Districting Commission to propose redrawn lines that suits the City Council and the Department of Justice — which also has to approve the lines — the city’s new districts should be finalized by March 2012. Petitioning (collecting signatures) for the city council primary in September does not begin until July.

But those dates could also change. Crain’s New York Business reported on Oct. 4 that the city’s primary date could be pushed forward to June from September in order to consolidate the primaries for state and federal races, saving taxpayer money, but also because the city’s Board of Elections says they don’t have time to prepare for a possible runoff vote with the complicated new voting machines that were introduced in September 2010.  A change in date could throw a wrench into the planning and fundraising plans of potential mayoral candidates.

The Districting Commission will submit its proposed maps to the City Council in early November, which will be subject to public review again in January. As for whether the primary date will be moved, that is far from clear.

The upcoming New York City elections and mapping of ethnic communities over time will be featured on the next episode of MetroFocus, premiering on WLIW21 on Oct. 23 at 10:30 p.m., THIRTEEN on Oct. 25 at 8:30 p.m. and NJTV on Oct. 25 at 10 p.m.



MetroFocus is made possible by James and Merryl Tisch, Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III, the Sylvia A. and Simon B. Poyta Programming Endowment to Fight Anti-Semitism, Bernard and Irene Schwartz, Rosalind P. Walter, Barbara Hope Zuckerberg, Jody and John Arnhold, the Cheryl and Philip Milstein Family, Janet Prindle Seidler, Judy and Josh Weston and the Dr. Robert C. and Tina Sohn Foundation.


© WNET All Rights Reserved.

825 Eighth Avenue

New York, NY 10019