New York took one step forward and one step back in the movement to ensure fair legislative redistricting this month. A new state law ensures fairer lines for county districts, but a commission charged with redrawing state Assembly districts has submitted a map that divides Scarsdale in ways that violate principles enumerated in the state constitution.
On Nov. 15, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signed into law Assemblymember Amy Paulin’s bill requiring all 23 counties in New York to follow established standards for fair legislative redistricting. The new law, which is effective immediately, amends Sections 10 and 34 of the Municipal Home Rule Law (MHRL). Paulin said it “keeps communities of interest whole, protects minority voting rights, and gives residents a clear, singular representative to advocate on their behalf.”
Her bill, a 30-year effort, was approved by the state legislature in June but not signed by then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who was preoccupied by the accusations of abuse that ended in his resignation in August.
Paulin first began fighting for fair county legislative districts when she was president of the League of Women Voters of Scarsdale (LWVS) in 1991. At that time, Scarsdale was split into two separate districts, and the town, along with the LWVS, sued Westchester County on the grounds that the state Municipal Home Rule Law prohibits towns from being divided. The town’s lawsuit was dismissed due to lack of standing, and although the LWVS lawsuit proceeded, it was never decided by the courts.
In 1993, Scarsdale’s 6.6 square miles were split into three county legislative districts. Paulin, who was then president of the Westchester LWV, again sued the county over unfair redistricting. The case went to the New York State Supreme Court, and then to the appellate level. Ultimately the NYS Appellate Division upheld the lower court decision that Westchester County was not required to follow the criteria in the MHRL because it operates under a charter form of government and is bound only by the redistricting criteria in its charter.
The county had two subsequent redistricting cycles in 2001 and 2011. County Executive George Latimer, who in 2001 chaired the Westchester County Board of Legislators, facilitated a fair-redistricting plan that involved members of the chamber’s minority party and outside good-government groups, even without no legal requirements to do so.
The new law requires that county districts be drawn to ensure that:
(1) Districts are as nearly equal in population as is practicable;
(2) They are not drawn with the intent or result of denying equal opportunity of racial or language minority groups to participate in the political process;
(3) Districts consist of contiguous territory;
(4) They are not drawn to favor incumbents or any particular party or candidate, or unjustly divide communities of interest, including smaller municipalities; and
(5) Are formed to promote orderly and efficient administration of elections.
“County redistricting should first and foremost be subject to standardized state and federal constitutional requirements in order to ensure fairness and equity,” said Paulin. “It is in this way that we preserve the will of the people of New York State. Politicians should be chosen by voters — not the other way around.”
The bill was sponsored by Sen. James Skoufis.
A divided commission
At a hearing of the New York Independent Redistricting Committee on Nov. 8, Scarsdale League of Women Voters president Alissa Baum, along with the county and state LWV presidents, protested the new state lines on the “Names” map that divides Scarsdale. The commission has been unable to agree on the new districts, with Republican members drawing the “Names” maps and Democratic members drawing “Letters” maps.
“Partisanship and lack of transparency … continue to embroil the drafting of proposed legislative maps,” said Baum.
Apparently ignoring the input of groups like the league and many private citizens, the commission Republicans divided Scarsdale, formerly Assembly District 88, into two parts on the “Names” map released earlier this month. Baum said the commission had provided “no explanation whatsoever to justify the configuration of any of the [proposed maps.]”
She noted that “three of the core requirements in shaping districts set forth in the New York State Constitution are to keep communities of interest together, keep municipal boundaries intact/preserve political subdivision, and maintain cores of existing districts. The ‘Names’ map violates all three requirements as they apply to the village of Scarsdale.”
Noting Scarsdale’s strong sense of community reflected in its nonpartisan government, excellent school system and many volunteer organizations, she pointed out that the village “remains one of the few local communities that has been able to sustain a printed newspaper” and asked why the commission disregarded municipal lines and removed portions of four of the five school neighborhoods from representation in a single Assembly district. The split is especially egregious because elementary schools serve as the polling sites in state and federal elections. Calling the situation “totally unacceptable,” Baum said, “We fully expect the commission to correct this grievous error.”
Because the redistricting process was neither open nor transparent and no rationale for the changes made, Baum said, “We have to wonder if the split of Assembly District 88 was due to an unlawful or partisan political factor.”
The Democratic “Letters” map of proposed Assembly districts does not split Scarsdale. Neither the “Names” nor the “Letters” maps of proposed Senate districts split Scarsdale.
Baum said the commission has two chances to propose maps to the state Legislature. The first deadline is Jan 15. If the Legislature rejects the maps, or the governor vetoes them, then the commission has one more shot at drafting maps, which must be done by Feb 28. If the Legislature rejects or the governor vetoes those maps, then the Legislature must complete the maps.
“We hope the commission takes its charge seriously and listens to the public so it can draw political boundaries that are in the public’s best interest,” said Baum.
Comments on the maps may be sent to email@example.com or mailed to Independent Redistricting Commission, 250 Broadway, 22nd Floor, New York, NY 10007.
— Michelle Sterling contributed to this report.