To coordinate such a huge task, the New York Independent Redistricting Commission is holding a series of hearings throughout the state to gather input.
The redistricting process traditionally happens every ten years after the Census count, and has long been subject to the whims of partisan policymakers. This has resulted in oddly shaped districts that divide communities, gerrymandered to favor the candidates of a political party.
However, a referendum was passed by New York State voters in 2014 that created a new Independent Redistricting Commission to replace the partisan process. Composed of five Democrats and five Republicans, the commission will take into account the information gathered from hearings and propose new districts that, in theory, will be less politically motivated.
The commission is expected to propose new district maps before the end of the month.
The commission recently held hearings in Queens and Brooklyn. Lasting multiple hours, the hearings were attended by a large number of New Yorkers who highlighted gerrymandered, problematic, and ineffective districting throughout the boroughs.
The Queens hearing received input from residents from Astoria to the Rockaways, however a few areas were mentioned multiple times because of their clearly poor district maps.
The districts that include Forest Hills, Rego Park, Kew Gardens, and other nearby neighborhoods received the most attention for the way the district lines divide communities.
Speakers discussed the ways that Asian, Black, Indian, and Latinx communities are particularly disenfranchised by the current district maps.
“The area from the Van Wyck Expressway all the way down to Nassau County is not just a road, it is the spine of a community,” explained John P. Albert, who testified at the hearing on behalf of the nonprofit organization Taking Our Seat. “It is home to a significant Indian American population that is split among three assembly districts.”
Maria Calfer, a Taiwanese immigrant and mother from Forest Hills, echoed a similar sentiment.
“There is a very active and vibrant civic community in Central Queens, but my neighbors and I have found it hard and at times disenfranchising to engage in politics,” she said. “We are represented by four different state senators, but only one of them has an office in central Queens.”
After the hearing, some Muslim residents expressed anger that the hearing was held during Eid al-Adha, a major holiday that lasts multiple days. The commission will continue to accept testimony from residents online through the middle of August.
Like Queens, the Brooklyn hearing featured testimony from residents throughout the borough but clearly highlighted a few key areas.
Primarily, residents spoke of the need to change districts in the southern half of Brooklyn, an area that at points even shares representation with Staten Island across the Narrows.
For example, the neighborhood of Sunset Park is currently divided among four different state senate districts, dividing the area’s growing Asian population and preventing them from having a cohesive voice in government.
L. Joy Williams, a representative from the Brooklyn branch of the NAACP, explained how similarly poor districting affects Black communities throughout the borough, particularly in and around Flatbush.
“The communities of African descent are diverse in Brooklyn, but well connected,” she said. “Our districts should reflect that.”
Residents testifying during the Brooklyn hearing directly called out partisan gerrymandering as the root of the problem, pointing to obtuse maps that were intended to favor Republican candidates.
“There is a pro-Republican bias in the New York Senate map, especially in Brooklyn,” said Martin Asher, an attorney testifying during the hearing. “This is clear partisan gerrymandering that does not benefit residents.”
State Senator Andrew Gounardes, who represents an oddly drawn southern Brooklyn district that includes parts of Bay Ridge, Gravesend, Gerritsen Beach and Flatbush, offered his own comments separate from the hearing.
“With the population density of Brooklyn being what it is, there’s no reason why my district would extend from the Narrows waterfront all the way to Flatbush Avenue, but cut out about half the population that lives in between that span,” he said.