The process of changing boundry lines for electoral districts is a critical one and the Center for Law and Social Justice (CLSJ) has been conducting a series of forums alerting the community to upcoming actions regarding the redistricting process. Moderated by election law and voting rights specialist Judge Paul Wooten, Dr. Esmerelda Simmons and Dr. John Flateau presented data on the importance of redistricting and community participation in the process.
Dr. John Flateau, a former member of the NYS Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), former Commissioner of the NYC Redistricting Commission for the 2000 Decennial Census for the City Council, Chairman of the U.S. Census Advisory Committee for the African-American Population, and a special advisor for redistricting of the NYS Senate Democratic Conference said, “We are under a 90-day countdown; once the holidays are over the redistricting process will be complete, unless it goes to the judiciary. If redistricting does go to court, we (the people) will be out of the process except for advocates and experts.”
CLSJ Executive Director Dr. Esmerelda Simmons said NYS redistricting should be complete by February. But, said Dr. Simmons, “LATFOR has not stated their criteria and priorities in drawing the maps. Meanwhile, they have people all over the state drawing districts.”
The problem seems to be twofold. Redistricting advocates have not been told how many Senate districts there are going to be. Right now there are 62 Senate districts based on mathematical formula in the NYS Constitution. “If they go to 63,” said Dr. Simmons, “there is going to be a lawsuit.”
In addition, LATFOR has not yet released prison data as required by the Prison Adjustment Act of 2010, which states inmates must be counted in their home districts. LATFOR has scheduled a public hearing on Prisoner Count and Reallocation which will take place in Albany on Friday, Nov. 18.
“We don’t have the prison data and we don’t have the number of Senate seats,” said Dr. Simmons. “But we are supposed to come up with maps. We see a trap. No matter what you do you are wasting some of the time. And if you don’t do anything, you are imperiling the possibility that the district you want will get drawn and be recognized.”
Dr. Flateau said the community must carefully watch how the Prisoner Adjustment Act of 2010 (PAA) is implemented. PAA mandates that state prisoners — about 60,000, most of whom come from downstate (Central Brooklyn, Southeast Queens, Harlem and the South Bronx), accounting for one-third of all state prisoners — need to be counted from the neighborhoods they came out of, not from the current jail cell where they are temporary residents. “Implementing PAA without any political shenanigans is going to be a critical issue,” said Flateau. “It has not yet been resolved.”
In the meantime, CLSJ has embarked on the time-consuming process of working with community groups and advocates to create two tentative sets of maps. One map will have one less congressional seat upstate and one less congressional seat downstate. The other map will have two congressional seats cut from upstate.
“We will have two less congressional seats,” Dr. Simmons said. “The usual way it works is that Republicans give up one seat and the Democrats give up one seat. However, Republicans generally control upstate, Democrats downstate. But all of the increase in population has been downstate. All of the decrease in population has been upstate.”
Dr. Simmons asked, “Is it really fair that New York City should lose a congressional seat? As advocates, we’re going to tell them that they should take two seats from upstate.”
The Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), Latino Justice PRLDEF, National Institute for Latino Policy (NILP), and the Center for Law and Social Justice (CLSJ) of Medgar Evers College have released the Unity Map, a joint proposal for new state Assembly and state Senate districts in New York City that reflect the changing demographics and protects the voting rights of Blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans. “The CLSJ has joined with other groups to see if we can come out with maps that are fair,” said Dr. Simmons.
Under the Unity Map, there will be 16 Latino majority State Assembly districts rather than the current 13, and seven majority State Senate districts rather than the current five. The Unity Map also preserves the number of black districts in the State Assembly and State Senate while simultaneously expanding the number of districts in Asian-American and Latino-American communities, in accordance with their population growth.
“Gov. Paterson will be remembered forever for signing the Prisoner Adjustment Act,” said Dr. Simmons. “Now we are in court trying to get it enforced.”
Dr. Simmons explained the tension behind prisoner redistricting. “One thing about Civil Rights Bills: First you win, then for the rest of your given life you have to defend it. Don’t take anything for granted. As soon as you think it is finished, they try to reverse it,” said Dr. Simmons.
She explained further. “This one, the Prisoner Adjustment Act, they didn’t even implement and they are trying to reverse it. LATFOR and the Dept. of Corrections were to enforce it. The Dept. of Corrections prepared the numbers of where the prisoners were and where they needed to be counted. And yes, there was a problem with some people who did not have a last address. Three state senators from upstate actually went into court to sue to find this law unconstitutional. LATFOR said, ‘We are not going to enforce the law because it is being challenged.’ It took the New York Times editorial and the threat of a lawsuit for not enforcing the law, for LATFOR to at least say on August 4 that they have every intention of implementing the law. As of the end of October we still haven’t gotten the adjusted numbers from LATFOR. The court battle continues,” said Dr. Simmons. “They are trying to say the law is illegal because some people don’t have a last address. The judge that has this case is one of the slowest judges I have ever seen. Usually, a case involving redistricting or elections moves faster than this.. Now we are waiting for a summary judgment. Based on the calendar, we don’t have any time at all. In the meantime, the law needs to be implemented.”
Considering NYS population changes, the size of a congressional district has increased by 65,000, that is from 654,000 to 718,000. The size of the Senate district, assuming they stay at 62, is going up almost 7,000. The size of an Assembly district is going to increase by about 3,000. “Congressional districts have to be absolutely equal and can only differ by one person, however, the courts have held that deviation for state and city districts can be plus or minus 5%. I can work with three or 4%. Dr. Flateau is a purist; he prefers 1%,” said Dr. Simmons.
“One of the insurance policies we have politically within this whole process is voter registration,” said Flateau. “The more electoral power we have on the ground, the harder it will be to box us in, regardless of where they draw the lines. If we maximize our voter registration now, then where they drop the lines won’t matter as much if we have the ability to produce voting power from our communities.”
Flateau said, “Our top five priorities are: make sure the Prisoner Adjustment Act is implemented; obey the state constitution, no change in the number of Senate seats; keep deviation of the Senate district populations to plus or -1%; stay on top of the redistricting process; and reinforce massive citizenship voter education and voter registration drives.
“One thing we know we all have to comply with is the federal Voting Rights Act,” said Dr. Simmons. “That is how we have gotten people who did not want to draw districts that would allow people of color to elect candidates of their choice to do so by simply telling the Justice Department.”
Dr. Simmons said, “The Voting Rights Act protects Blacks and other people of color on the basis of race, yet recent Supreme Court decisions state you can’t do redistricting on the basis of race. The Justice Department will be looking to see if jurisdictions have discriminated on the basis of race. How do you do districting if you’re not using race as a criteria? Communities of interest. It makes sure you put people together who have some commonality, and do things together, like go to school together, shop together, use the same mode of transportation. Social occasions are important; the West Indian Day Parade can be used as evidence of commonality. Add to that that they vote similarly in the same neighborhood that makes the argument you can prove. Social science can show that we are one.”
Dr. Simmons makes several recommendations: “Everyone needs to register and vote. Permanent residents need to apply to become citizens so that they can register and vote. Submit ideas on where district lines should be drawn to LATFOR.state.ny.us. There will be hearings after LATFOR issues its maps. Prepare to testify for or against any proposed redistricting plan because every word, every e-mail, every submission to LATFOR will ultimately end up in the U.S. Justice Department.”
Dr. Simmons and Dr. Flateau announced this is the last redistricting process they will lead. They are mentoring young people such as attorney Latrice Monique Walker, “but we don’t have enough young people,” said Dr. Simmons. “You need to get involved now because it runs in 10-year cycles. It’ll be over in another six months except for the lawsuits, then it won’t come around again for another 10 years. You need to get involved and learn now, while the process is going on.” In addition, said Dr. Simmons, “After a district is drawn we are going to have to justify the district. There is a real need for social science experts.”