6 June 2011
Sen. Daniel L. Squadron
188 State Street Room 515
Legislative Office Building
Albany, NY 12247
RE: New York State Senate Democratic Public Forum on Independent Redistricting Reform
Dear Sen. Squadron:
On behalf of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, thank you for the opportunity to submit testimony regarding the critical need for redistricting reform in New York. The Brennan Center supports the Redistricting Reform Act of 2011, which will increase transparency and public participation in the state’s redistricting process and provide important protections for communities throughout the state.
The Brennan Center is a non-partisan public policy and legal advocacy organization that focuses on fundamental issues of democracy and justice. We believe that a fair and transparent redistricting process is essential to keeping government accountable. A process that leads to well-defined and well-represented communities will better promote a self-determinative democracy in which individuals and groups create solutions to the greatest problems facing our cities, towns, counties and states. In New York, we support a process that is independent of the legislature, conducted by a diverse body, under sensible guidelines and with ample public transparency.
In the past, the redistricting process allowed political insiders to make sophisticated calculations regarding the legislative districts they wanted far from the public eye. That secrecy has allowed legislators to manipulate the process in a way that sometimes harms New York communities, and undermines fair and equal representation in our government. The Redistricting Reform Act will improve upon the status quo and open up the process to allow for meaningful public engagement.
The Act requires the redistricting commission to provide the relevant data and software to the public; requires a series of public hearings to be held throughout the state; encourages public comment and input; and requires the commission to answer questions, consider alternative proposals, and explain the rationale for its final proposed plan. The Act also includes important provisions to assure that the new districts adequately provide minority voters throughout the state the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. And it instructs the commission to recognize and preserve cohesive communities with shared interests whenever possible. These changes will dramatically improve New York’s redistricting process and will better ensure that New Yorkers and their communities are adequately represented in the legislative process.
As you consider this important legislation we make the following two recommendations to improve the efficacy of the Redistricting Reform Act and to ensure greater opportunity for fair and impartial redistricting. First, we recommend that you increase the permissible population deviation for legislative districts. The current population deviation unnecessarily limits the ability of the new redistricting commission to keep together communities of interest and to comply with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. An increased population deviation will allow the commission the flexibility necessary to ensure better community-based and voter-responsive redistricting. No state as diverse as New York has population deviation limits as tight as 1%.
Second, we recommend that you slightly modify the language addressing protection of minority voting rights in §98 2(c) by adding the following underlined language: “(c) senate, assembly, or congressional districts shall not be established that are intended to or result in a denial or abridgement of minority voting rights including the opportunity of minority voters to participate in the political process, and to elect the candidates of their choice, including but not limited to minority populations with the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice with or without comprising a majority of the district.” This will make it clear that the commission should also consider majority-minority districts where necessary or appropriate.
In short, the Brennan Center for Justice supports the Redistricting Reform Act of 2011, which will help create legislative districts that will better reflect true communities, uninfluenced by partisan rancor or incumbent protectionism. We urge the legislature to support it.
Thank you for the opportunity to be heard on this important issue.