The late U.S. Rep. Tip O’Neill liked to say that all politics is local, by which he meant local issues engage the voters’ strongest feelings. And so it is appropriate that the national problem of gerrymandering — redrawing legislative districts to benefit the party in power — be addressed first on the local level.
Assemblymember Amy Paulin (D-Scarsdale) and New York State Sen. James Skoufis (D-Hudson Valley) announced last week the passage of their legislation (A.229c/S.5160b) requiring all counties to follow set standards for fair legislative redistricting. “Fair redistricting is fundamental to democracy,” said Paulin. “This legislation will prevent towns like Scarsdale from being split and ensure redistricting standards are complied with, regardless of whether the county happens to operate under a charter.”
Skoufis agreed. “Representation matters, and for those living in self-chartered counties such as the three I represent, this legislation takes us one large step toward preserving the will of the people by standardizing how legislative districts are drawn and redrawn,” he said. “Just shy of 20 years in the making, this is a bill with serious teeth and I call on the governor to sign it so that these reforms are enacted just in time for the 2022 once-a-decade county redistricting proposals. I am grateful to Assemblymember Paulin for her partnership and years of dedicated leadership on this issue.”
Paulin was president of the Scarsdale League of Women Voters in 1991 when the Republican-led Westchester County Board of Legislators split Scarsdale, a coterminous town/village of only 6.6 square miles, into two separate districts. The town and the Scarsdale LWV sued Westchester County on the grounds that the state Municipal Home Rule Law prohibits towns from being divided. The town’s lawsuit was dismissed for lack of standing, and although the Scarsdale LWV lawsuit proceeded, it was never decided by the courts.
Adding insult to injury, the county board in 1993 split Scarsdale into three districts. Paulin, who by then was president of the county LWV, again sued the county over unfair redistricting. The case went to the New York State Supreme Court, and then to the NYS Appellate Division, which upheld the lower court decision that Westchester County was not required to follow the Municipal Home Rule criteria because it operates under a charter form of government and is bound only by the redistricting criteria in its charter.
The major players in Westchester’s ongoing redistricting drama — Paulin, Skoufis, and attorney Henry Neale, who argued the second court case, along with current representatives of the LWV and village government — gathered at the Scarsdale library last Wednesday to discuss the latest development. Paulin recalled that the league was “outraged” by the partisan redistricting of 1991 and 1993. “Redistricting is the essence of democracy,” she said. “It’s what makes fair and equitable lines that allow true representation to occur in government.”
One of Scarsdale’s three legislators back then was George Latimer, now county executive, who represented East Scarsdale; Lois Bronz represented the western part of the town and Kay Carsky, a Republican, the southern part. “They represented us well,” said Paulin, but having three representatives “dilutes our ability to have a voice at the county level. And so when I came to the legislature in 2001, this is one of the first bills that I introduced.” But the Republican-controlled Senate had little interest in the issue. It took a change in the leadership with Sen. Andrea Stewart-Cousins, the Senate Majority Leader who also represents Scarsdale, and “our excellent partner Sen. Skoufis, to be able to have a two-house bill that we expect the governor will sign,” Paulin said.
“I hope everyone here appreciates the incredible Assemblymember you have in Amy Paulin,” said Skoufis, who served with Paulin in the Assembly before moving to the Senate. “I was used to the aggressive way that Amy gets bills across the finish line, but this one had a special meaning to her … I am really proud to jump on this effort that Amy has been long a part of. It is happening just in time. If it didn’t pass this year — we’d see you in 10 years.”
The new legislation now requires the 23 counties in New York that operate under a charter to follow the same redistricting standards as all other counties in New York. Their bill ensures towns will not be divided for unjust purposes and brings the standards in line with generally accepted best practices for redistricting. All residents will have equal weight in the allocation of representation, districts will be compact and contiguous and drawn to promote the orderly and efficient administration of elections. They may not be drawn to favor voters of one political party or with the intent or result of abridging the equal opportunity of racial or language minority groups to participate in the political process.
Skoufis said that over the decades, lawsuits contesting gerrymandered district lines have been filed in nearly all of the state’s 23 chartered counties, including Orange County, one of the three he represents.
“You are going to have some politicians who are not going to be happy with the rules that we are prescribing, but if you ask 100 of your neighbors — are these rules fair? All 100 will say yes,” he said.
Districts must be within a certain size; keep interested communities together; and have “reasonable” shapes — “not drawn like salamanders.” He said the gerrymandered district represented by Democratic Majority Leader Stewart-Cousins is “nonsensical.”
For the 23 chartered counties, “this is a game changer,” Skoufis said. “And I think next year, you will see a level playing field. And honestly, because of this bill, you’re going to see fewer lawsuits … because it’ll force these bad actors in some of these counties to get it right the first time.”
Scarsdale Mayor Jane Veron, who like Paulin is a past president of the LWV, thanked Paulin for her “steadfast commitment to helping others … today we celebrate your legislation articulating the highest standards, incorporating best practices, and truly modernizing redistricting to ensure that towns and villages are not divided for unjust purposes.” Veron also thanked County Executive Latimer “who led the effort to collaboratively develop a fair Westchester County redistricting plan.”
Kathy Meany, president of the League of Women Voters of Westchester County, said the league “applauds the efforts of those who worked towards the elimination of gerrymandering in our state,” noting that new lines will be drawn in January 2022 not only for the county legislature, but also for U.S. congressional, New York State Senate and Assembly districts for the next 10 years. “We want to ensure that the public knows what is at stake, how and when to get involved, and how to hold accountable those who draw the lines that decide our jurisdictions,” Meany said.
Alissa Baum, president of the Scarsdale League of Women Voters, said, “It’s simply an honor to be here representing the organization that brought efforts to improve redistricting in Westchester. We are nonpartisan with a mission to educate voters on the issues, on the candidates, and thus empower them to actively participate in government … Assemblywoman Paulin showed how organizations such as the league can inspire individuals and government entities to effect positive change and to make the election process fairer. This is a tremendous accomplishment.”
Paulin recalled working with the late Jeanne Richman, “a tireless advocate and my mentor through the entire process. She edited; she proofed; we met constantly on this and we still lost — but we ultimately won.” She concluded by thanking the speakers for their praise but reminding them “We couldn’t have done this without Senator James Skoufis. He was also relentless on his side … without that we would not be here.”
A member of the audience said that splitting municipalities resulted in people not knowing who their legislators are. “If people don’t know who represents them, the government just doesn’t work as well. “
Another member of the audience asked how the new law would affect a city like New Rochelle.
Paulin said some cities in Westchester have the same populations as towns — for example, the city of Peekskill and the village of Scarsdale both have 17,000 people — so neither should be split.
Skoufis added that “neighborhoods of interest under this bill are supposed to be kept together and protected. And so even if it’s getting divvied up, this bill prescribes the divvying up in a responsible manner.”
Paulin said, “You won’t see a neighborhood association split, because there’ll be a recognition that that’s important. We really made a comprehensive effort to take the way people see themselves in the community and put that into the bill.”