Local Pols Knock Plan for State Election Districts

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ByMegan Bungeroth

It happens once a decade and it's never an easy process. In accordance with the state Constitution, the state Legislature is currently in the process of creating new district lines for the Assembly, state Senate and congressional representatives.

The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR) has just released a set of maps outlining the proposed new districts for the state Legislature, and local elected officials are up in arms over what they call a seriously partisan and severely flawed process that heavily favors Republicans, who hold a slim majority in the senate.

LATFOR consists of six members, four legislators and two nonlegislators who are appointed by the temporary president of the Senate, the speaker of the Assembly and the minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly. It uses Census data from 2010 to redraw lines in order to reflect population shifts. While the Assembly must maintain 150 districts, according to the state's Constitution, the number of senators may shift. LATFOR has proposed adding a 63rd Senate seat in upstate New York that would encompass portions of five different counties and has served as a flashpoint of criticism from Democrats and good government groups who call the district a bad case of gerrymandering an extraneous Republican-leaning district in order to preserve their majority.

"The maps that came out are typical and reflect no sense of the push for a nonpartisan reform of redistricting," said Richard Emory, an attorney who was involved in litigation over the last set of redistricting lines in 2003-2004. "They are purely political. They are obviously an attempt of what we call the unholy alliance of the Assembly and the state Senate by using the majority of each body to favor the majority."

The proposed districts, especially for the Senate, have been criticized by Democrats as stringing together certain communities by tenuous geographical connections and separating others that should be included in the same district.

"I think that this is not a proposed actual redistricting plan, it's a political scheme that the Republicans actually put out knowing that everyone would scream, 'Are you kidding, is this a joke?'" said State Sen. Liz Krueger, whose district would shift considerably and encompass parts of the west side of Manhattan and a small sliver of eastern Midtown if the current maps are approved. "They are likely to already have plan B in a back pocket, and they will come out with plan B after these nine hearings that they've agreed to have."

Emory said they're overpopulating and packing downstate Democratic districts in order to create more Republican seats. "That's why the shapes are so peculiar, because they're picking voters instead of voters picking representatives," he said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to veto the lines unless they are created by an independent panel. If he does, it's likely that the case would have to go through the courts.

"Since the first day I came to the Assembly, I have been a supportive of independent redistricting," said Upper East Side Assembly Member Micah Kellner. "Any time an elected official has the ability to pick his votes, that's a subversion of democracy."

Kellner said that even though his own district would not change much under the current proposal, he supports the governor's veto promise and hopes there will be major reform before they are brought for a vote by the Legislature.

"Some of these districts are connected by a highway, connected by a shoreline. They are purposefully connecting some districts while avoiding others," Kellner said. "I think the public realizes the ridiculousness of this."

Public hearings are scheduled to continue around the state through Feb. 16. Many expect LATFOR to release new maps based on feedback some time after that, at which point the Legislature will have to approve them before they go to the governor.

Senate Democrats have already filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the 63rd Senate seat, and other lawsuits may surface before the hearings are concluded.

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