6:01 pm Jan. 17, 20121
Fans of “Abraham Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner” or the “earmuffs” of Western New York likely won’t be happy with the results. But selected student-contestants in the 2012 New York Redistricting Project were rewarded today for chopping up some of New York’s most notorious election districts, thereby implicitly rejecting the idea that it requires the special expertise of an intensely partisan state legislature to carry out the decennial redrawing of legislative and congressional lines.
The contest was a glance at what State Senate and U.S. congressional districts across the state might look like if they were built to be compact, ethnically balanced and—most radically—competitive.
“We all know how complicated the redistricting process is, but that doesn’t mean we have to throw up our hands,” said Costas Panagopoulos, one of the directors of the project.
Panagopoulos announced the two winning teams this afternoon at a small gathering at Fordham University. A group of seven students from SUNY Buffalo Law School won for its map of the U.S. Congress while a George Mason student won for his redistricting of the New York State Senate.
The awards are given out as a legislature-appointed committee goes through a process of determining new lines based on the 2010 census in time for next year’s elections, all under threat of a veto from Governor Andrew Cuomo, who has vowed not to accept lines that aren’t independently drawn. The Republicans in the State Senate, which they control by a narrow majority, are staunchly opposed to any reform that would deprive them of the ability to draw the lines to their advantage, and are now going so far as to push for the Senate to add a 63rd seat in order to help them preserve some favorably constituted districts.
There were some rules the students had to comply with, which comported roughly with the parameters that have been laid out in numerous redistricting-reform proposals: Their districts had to meet federal laws mandating a certain number of “majority-minority” districts, all districts had to be contiguous and they all needed to have almost identical populations. The map-drawers got higher scores for creating compact districts and ones that were at least “generally” competitive between Republicans and Democrats.
Beyond that, everything was fair game.
As the SUNY Buffalo students began, they drew three lines through the 28th congressional district. There went the earmuff.
“Louise Slaughter’s district was taking bits from Buffalo city and Rochester city and then the thruway in between,” said Matthew Burrows, one of the team members. “They’re similar upstate cities, but it made more sense for us to keep them separate because they had different identities.”
Also gone: Jerrold Nadler’s 8th district, which currently hooks from Coney Island through Red Hook to Manhattan’s West Side. The crooked shapes staggering across jagged clusters of city blocks were replaced with dense districts largely confined to chunks of existing, identifiable neighborhoods.
Though members of the SUNY Buffalo team came from all over the state, the person judges decided had drawn the best State Senate map was from England.
“Not being from New York, or even from the country, I was looking from an outside point of view where the ability to actually increase the competitiveness of districts could only be helpful towards democracy in the country,” said Lee Sparrow.
His map favored splitting Long Island—the stronghold of the Senate’s Republican leadership—into more compact zones reaching roughly from a line along the middle to each shore. Working with smaller State Senate districts, Sparrow was able to make a nearly 50 percent Asian-American district.
It isn’t the first attempt at beating Albany at its own game. Advocating for nonpartisan redistricting, a group of good-government groups formed ReShape New York to lobby for an independent process, and Common Cause New York even created its own map. But the students’ process was, by design, more (small-d!) democratic.
The project, funded partly by the Sloan Foundation, used Azavea’s open-source mapping software to create the templates. Good-government advocates and officials have used the software for similar projects across the country in Arizona, Ohio and Philadelphia. Michael McDonald, one of the project’s directors said more than 400 users signed up for the New York site.
“I like to say I’m a recovering gerrymanderer,” said McDonald, a George Mason professor, who helped to draw state legislative districts since the 1980s.
The students’ maps don’t count for anything, officially, but McDonald said the governor’s office has asked for copies of the reports, presumably so that they can be considered in a mix with the maps of good-government groups, various interest groups, and the official ones, expected next week.
“Whether or not any of this will get passed, we’re highly doubtful, simply because it has to be approved by the New York State Senate and Assembly,” said Burrows. “But at least the idea is out there.”
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