On the second floor of the Kingston Public Library, the three members of the subcommittee for Kingston redistricting face just a handful of curious residents in an otherwise empty room. Ward 4 alder Rita Worthington, Ward 1 alder Barbara Hill and Ward 7 alder Michael Olivieri have been charged with the unwieldy task of redistricting the nine voting wards in the City of Kingston, and they’re making the best of it.
Chair of the Kingston Common Council alder Worthington mused about why the turnout for the first public hearing on the matter was so poor.
“It was advertised pretty well, I think, as far as being on the website,” said Worthington. “But you know word of mouth is always the best. We’re doing the best we can to open it up to the public at least, for them to come to us with questions. Sometimes when you don’t understand something you don’t participate in it.”
Complex, mired in statistics and amorphous designations, redistricting, as has been noted, is just not a barnburner of a subject.
The legally mandated responsibility of states, counties and municipalities across the nation is to sift every ten years through discussions of population and demographic changes in order to rectify imbalances and achieve parity among myriad interest groups. Not doing it is not an option. Doing it improperly can land one in court and result in having to do it all over again.
Strategies for successful redistricting vary.
A ten-member bipartisan statewide redistricting commission in Albany earlier this year was unable to find consensus and presented two competing maps. Rather than give them another chance, the Democrat-controlled state legislature, decided to go it alone and create its own maps. They were struck down as a gerrymander by the courts, and 37-year old Jonathan Cervas of the Institute for Politics and Strategy at Carnegie Mellon University was selected as the special master to draw up the maps, which he did.
Locally, the Ulster County commission on reapportionment remains struggling under the new rules signed into law by governor Kathy Hochul on October 27. A lawsuit alleging illegal deviations in population size between the largest and smallest legislative districts as well as impermissibly reconfigured districts within Gardiner, Plattekill and Shawangunk ended when Ulster County judge Kevin Bryant invalidated the redrawn county maps.
The county reapportionment commission has been ordered to produce a new legislative map, weighed in on by the public and ratified by the legislature, by January 3 or have the judge appoint his own special master.
Communities of interest
To forestall a similar fate, it is surmised, Kingston chose its own expert right out of the gates. Senior research associate for the Benjamin Center Joshua Simons, a specialist in geographic information systems, has been tapped to redraw the city ward maps, These are being presented to the redistricting subcommittee.
“The first thing that you do is you try to identify communities of interest,” said Simons, “Look at demographic data or socio-economic data, things along those lines, but there should also be a parallel process to ask people, What communities do you consider yourself a part of? Usually, that’s done in public information sessions.”
After this initial step, a data base was built using the current data and maps of the current ward system. The maps and demographic data have been posted on the Engage Kingston website for public viewing.
“There were three versions of the map,” explained alder Olivieri. “So the first one, Map A, was just the simplest way of redistricting, which was, How can we move a street over here and over there to minimize the confusion? And then Map B was more compact, where they just tried to keep the highest concentration of people together.”
Map C, as it is designed, could create a ward that offered more minority opportunities.
New York’s municipal Home Rule Law requires redistricting to take into account, cores of existing districts, pre-existing political subdivisions and communities of interest. Ulster County’s charter requires certain considerations as well, such as that attention should be paid to existing district boundaries and geographical features. Providing advantage to one political party or another is prohibited.
“I’m losing, theoretically half of Derrenbacher [Street] because I shared Derrenbacher with Ward 6, which is alderman Tony Davis,” said Olivieri. “And then in all versions of the map, I’m losing Abbey Street, which does have a big impact on me personally, because I had a lot of votes on Abbey Street. There were a lot of people on that street that knew me personally.”
“Plan B, the deviations are a little bit looser,” said Simons,“ but I was also trying things like, let’s use Broadway as a boundary, dropping back and forth over it. It’s a different way of achieving a legal deviation. And then through the discussions of the demographics, there’s the Midtown area both on the north and south side of Broadway, where there’s the highest geographically concentrated area of protected minorities.”
Voting rights and rules
Alder Worthington’s ward reports the highest populations of black and Hispanic residents in the city. The effect of redistricting to minorities groups — be they labeled as such through skin color, through cultural identification, or through the language they speak — presents specific considerations when a map is redrawn.
“It has to be considered, because if you’re not taking that into account there’s a couple places where you run afoul of the law,” explained Simons. “The most obvious one is the Federal Voting Rights Act [VRA]. Now, there’s also the John R. Lewis New York State Voting Rights Act [NYVRA], which is going to come into full effect in about six months. And then there’s also under municipal home-rule law, you have to give consideration of communities of interest. And one way that communities of interest can be defined or described would be by racial and ethnic categories. That’s certainly not the only way to define a community of interest, but it’s certainly one way. You have to definitely be aware and test for those things because as soon as you run afoul of those laws you’re gonna end up in court, and it’s going to go badly.”
The NYVRA determines which states and political subdivisions must obtain prior clearance from the state justice department before changes to voting practices take effect. The state looks for a history of voting-rights violations. The federal VRA, passed in 1965, prohibits voting standards, practices or procedures that result in the denial or abridgement of the right of any citizen to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
“Now, the area northeast of Ward 4 are very interesting from a redistricting standpoint because it’s split up from 2, 6 and 5. Each grabs pieces,” said Simons. “Plan C was what would happen if we wanted to create a ward that kind of encompassed that area that currently split a bunch of wards …. I don’t know that this is an issue, but it’s one of those things that raises some red flags you want to look at because you’re taking this area that has a pretty concentrated population, consists of a couple of different protected minority classes listed amongst the districts. Now I can say definitively that there’s not a federal-voting-rights-act issue there, but it’s difficult to say anything definitively about the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act because it’s not in effect yet. It’s never been litigated.”
Dealing with diversity
What was Worthington hearing from her Ward 4 constituents? She expressed dismay at the lack of response. “Unfortunately, I’m not really hearing anything,” said Worthington. “I think it goes back to a matter of not really understanding it, and not knowing how it will affect people individually. And so, you know, what I’ve been telling people, I think the main thing for us is to make sure that we keep representation when redrawing the lines. And I think that’s what people really care about.”
Simons explained that the whole idea was to try to create wards which group people with similar interests, “ideally shared interests together, so that their voice can be amplified.”
In this one instance, said Simons, diversity dilutes amplification. “And by diversity, I mean, say you have a mix of socioeconomic classes,” he said. “So a given ward’s got a very rich section, and another section very poor, right? Now that’s economically diverse. The issue there is that you run the risk of having the voices of the poor constituents within that district be easily overpowered by [voices of] the more affluent. When you create something that groups all the poor people together, it’s generally not considered a good thing. But this is an instance where it can be because it amplifies the voices of those people to advocate for the issues that affect them the most.”
The subcommittee decides
Throughout the process of redistricting, thorny racial and socieoeconomic considerations may empower one group of residents at the expense of another. Concentrating one minority group by geography risks segregating that group from the whole. On the other hand, spreading out a minority group across different districts risks diluting its voice.
“For Ward 4 usually when we’re dealing with economics,” said Worthington, “a lot of black and brown, Hispanic people, really fall into the lower part of the economic spectrum. Ward 4 is the ward that has the most economically depressed and oppressed people. Now why that is in the City of Kingston is beyond me. You have Uptown, Midtown and Downtown. Midtown happens to be my ward, which I’m proud of, proud to represent the people of Ward 4. But yes, it is labeled as one of the poorest economic populations on the census tract.”
Whether any socioeconomic, cultural or racially identified minority can truly be said to be monolithic is almost beside the point. Historically, minorities of all kinds have been lumped together to justify poor treatment at the hands of dominant majorities. Laws have been enacted to curb such excesses. Alas, laws in some states have also been passed to protect such excesses.
“The thing is, you’re not really drawing these lines based solely on any one of these things, right?” said Simons. “The idea is to take it all into consideration and allow the committee to weigh the pros and cons of each. The other thing that I would point out is that I’m not the one making the decision.”
That will be up to the residents of Kingston and the subcommittee for redistricting. The second public hearing will be held at the city hall on Thursday, January 12.