By: University at Buffalo Law School
We have fully complied with both federal and state law. In addition, we have designed the new boundaries to better represent the changing demographics of New York State to include two districts with Hispanic voting age majorities, three African American voting age majorities, and an Asian voting age plurality district.
Early on in our re-districting process, we established three major goals essential to producing fair and equitable congressional voting representation: (1) preserving communities of common social/socioeconomic culture; (2) retaining/encouraging political competitiveness; and (3) removing previous impractical congressional lines. When addressing the first issue, we realized that drawing congressional district lines based on common social/socioeconomic culture satisfied many of our other goals, including common sense. Cultural communities face similar issues and they do so with a common political and historical background for the choices they make. They read the same newspapers; their children compete against one another in high school sports. We wanted to construct congressional district lines that would provide representation that reflects those common bonds. Next, we determined that we wanted boundaries in sync with the goals of a true democracy and that encouraged political competitiveness among parties. By keeping cohesive cultural communities, we simultaneously managed to end up with competitive districts. We also complied with the requirements of the Voting Rights Act and, also drew a new district to reflect demographic changes in our state's Hispanic community.
Looking at the current congressional lines made it clear that there was room for improvement. In order to reflect the loss of two seats from NY's delegation and in keeping with reduced population growth or loss in upstate NY, we retained the full amount of congressional districts south of the Rockland/Westchester County area.
We adhered to the specific criteria set by the competition guidelines, the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act. We only deviated from certain goals of the redistricting project (contiguity, compactness, etc.) when it was necessary to do so due to demographic or geographic constraints.
Contiguity means that every part of a district is reachable from every other part without crossing the district’s borders. All districts within our plan are contiguous, as seen on our final map. We do not have any districts that have “Point contiguity” or “touch-point contiguity” where two sections of a district are connected only by a single point. Not only are our boundaries contiguous, as needed by law, but they are land contiguous as well, meaning that within a district, a Congressperson could drive from one end to another without going through a separate Congressional district (with the obvious exception of islands). We feel like this allows voters to comprehend their districts better, and makes for a cleaner looking map that everyone can understand.
All districts within a plan must have nearly equal populations. While the law does not require perfectly equal populations, the courts have said that “districts must be as close in population as is practicable.” We satisfied this criteria to the fullest extent. The target population for each district is 717,707 people. Each of our 27 districts is within less than 1% of this target.
Federal Voting Rights Act
Compliance with the Voting Rights Act will be assumed if maps include a minority-majority district in any area where a minority group is “sufficiently large and geographically compact to constitute a majority in a single-member district.” (see Thornburg v. Gingles, 478 U.S. 30, 49 (1986)).
We have gone above and beyond what is required by the Federal Voting Rights Act in this regard. We maintain the same number of African-American districts, and added an additional Hispanic majority district in the New York City to reflect this growing population. In addition, we drew an Asian plurality district in Flushing, Queens.
Communities of Interest
Preserving communities of interest was one of our top priorities when working out the new boundaries. Our new lines encompass communities of interest and those with shared identities. While it was not possible to draw perfect lines to keep every community together, we took the most care in preserving what we could while also drawing the lines in a “cleaner” way and keeping in line with the requisite competition criteria. Our map minimizes the splitting of political subdivisions, but also recognizes that some communities extend beyond political boundaries.
For example, our new District 1 is an Adirondack region district, comprising almost the whole of the Adirondack State Park region. The communities in this region share common interests such as outdoor activities, preservation, tourism-based economies, and a generally rural but mostly nonagricultural lifestyle. Though it is a large district, the populations at its furthest corners - from Watertown to Plattsburgh to Lake George - share more in common with each other than they often do with some of their closest neighbors to the south (e.g., compare Watertown to Plattsburgh and then to Syracuse).
Additional examples include District 3, which was drawn with communities to the east of the Hudson River in mind. This is a mostly rural area, with the exception of Troy and some of Rensselaer County. Culturally, the rural communities in this district take on the character of western New England more than they do that of the communities on the west side of the Hudson and they comprise many former Palatine German communities that share a common historical background.
District 4 is generally known as Leatherstocking Country in NY tourism lingo. It encompasses some Mohawk River communities and the eastern Finger Lakes Region, as well as the college towns of Ithaca and Binghamton in the south. For the most part, these are rural or small-town communities that share an industrial economic past or an education-based economic present.
District 6 was created to provide central New Yorkers a common district. To this effect, Utica, Rome and Syracuse now share a single representative. This is in contrast to the existing Congressional districts, which splits the central New York cities among surrounding rural enclaves.
In New York City, we revamped every Congressional district to eliminate the tangle of district lines which divided communities and neighborhoods. The result is a district map which envelops cohesive communities and affords to each fair political representation.
Finally, although we endeavored to maintain political subdivisions, we found it impossible to draw 27 congressional districts without violating county borders. While we endeavored to maintain counties, we of course had to draw lines to encompass 717,000 persons, and this often left us with Congressional districts that bled across county lines. We feel, however, that our map improves on the current districts, which violate counties for overtly political purposes.
Competitive elections are a primary factor in the preservation of our democracy. Our districts are competitive to the maximum extent possible. In Upstate New York, the average partisan differential is a healthy 8%, well within the “competitive” range. Going further downstate, the differential increases as a result of high Democratic majorities in most political subdivisions. Statewide, 15 of our congressional districts have partisan differentials of less than 10%, and are considered “competitive.” Those that have higher indexes are in cities where it is impossible to increase political competitiveness without severely compromising other values, such as contiguity, compactness, and maintaining communities.
The counterbalance to competitiveness is assuring that a final redistricting plan does not unfairly bias one party over another. For the purposes of this competition, proportionality is met when the percentage of districts a party would likely win closely mirrors that party’s percentage of the statewide vote, which is 61.8%.
New York’s Congressional delegation consists of 21 Democrats (72%) and 8 Republicans (28%). The redistricting software does not have a function to show how redrawn districts would affect this statewide proportion, however it does allow us to see how each congressional district voted in the 2010 gubernatorial election.
Under the current map, only two Congressional districts favored the Republican candidate for governor in 2010 (districts 26 and 27). Under our proposal, three districts would have favored the Republican candidate. This means our map would increase the Republican voice in statewide elections.
Assuming a correlation to individual Congressional races, we anticipate that our map would slightly improve statewide proportionality.
Compactness assures that oddly shaped districts are minimized. Clearly this is not the case with the current lines. Using the Schwartzberg measure, which is the ratio of the perimeter of the district to the perimeter of a circle with the same area as the district, existing congressional districts have an average compactness ratio of 48.5%
Our proposed congressional districts have an average compactness ratio of 61.20%.
Western New York Population Losses
Districts 7,8,9, and 10 in the Western New York area lost more population than any other region of New York State in the decade between the last two censuses. It was also home to one of the most egregious examples of partisan gerrymandering (See NY-28’s “Earmuff District”). With this in mind, we removed a district from Western New York while creating a new congressional map that better reflects the values of the region and their proper representation in Washington.
District 9 in our map rightfully gives the city of Rochester and its satellite communities along Lake Ontario their own representative district. With District 7 we wanted to remove the "earmuff" shape that placed residents of Buffalo in the same congressional district as people from Niagara Falls and Rochester. These are all distinct communities with their own histories and issues and should not be lumped together to serve partisan ends. With Districts 7 and 10, we focused on giving communities with predominantly urban communities and urban issues their own representative district and doing the same for those that face issues related to rural life. Our District 7 comprises the entire city of Buffalo (no longer splitting it up based primarily on minority neighborhoods as before), the Southtowns (where any resident will say they're from Buffalo), and the cities of North Tonawanda and Niagara Falls, which share so much culturally and geographically with Buffalo that their addition to this district makes sense. District 10 encompasses most of the old NY-29, a rural, conservative area that has remained culturally and politically consistent dating back to the 19th century.
We believe that the representative of communities that face issues related to an agricultural economy shouldn't feel torn between those constituents that face the entirely different and often contradicting interests of postindustrial city life, and we drew our lines accordingly.
The importance of a second hispanic voting age majority district
The Hispanic/Latino demographic in the United States is the fastest growing minority population. Accordingly, politicians and other policy makers should pay close attention to this demographic. However, that is currently not the case in most elections. Latinos in the United States in 2009 made up 15% (or 44.3 million) of the total population, and by 2050, the U.S. Census projects that the total Latino population will constitute a quarter of the country.
These changes in demographics pose important political implications for future campaigns in the U.S. and for the electorate. Today, the Latino population is still considered “up for grabs” by both political parties in our country. While the estimated support is around 60% in favor of the Democratic Party, many more Latinos are reporting today to be independent, or unsure of their political preference. This fact makes this demographic critical and highly influential in the political process.
These facts presented a compelling opportunity for us to design a second district in the New York City area with a majority Hispanic population. It is important that New York add a second Hispanic majority district so that the demographic is better represented, as they are growing in numbers in the New York City area. In running an evaluation of our congressional map, Districts 13 and 14 in the New York City area are Hispanic majority, with 64.63% and 51.53%, respectively. This preserves democracy by giving this group a louder voice in the political arena.
Drawing Congressional Districts has been an enormously satisfying exercise, one that leaves us with enormous respect for the challenges inherent in the process. Whereas we had the luxury of drawing from a blank slate, our elected officials inherit the districts every ten years, and even minor changes are subject to intense pressure from the political parties, interest groups and the voters. Moreover, drawing “fair” districts necessarily invokes subjective notions of what fairness means.
While it is impossible to draw “perfect” districts, and very hard to draw “fair” districts, there is tremendous opportunity to draw districts that improve upon those we currently have.
Our team, meeting twice a week for two months, and working in our spare time, developed a Congressional map that greatly improves on that status quo ante by every available measure. If we can do it, we have every right to expect our elected officials to do the same.