Queens has had its first hearing in the post-Census process of redrawing congressional and state legislative lines under a new commission ushered in by voters back in 2014.
An online forum last Thursday gave constituents of the World’s Borough a three-minute opportunity to expose gerrymandering and propose alternatives to the current formation of legislative districts. The hearing was the Queens leg of a virtual “listening tour” that the nonpartisan Independent Redistricting Commission is holding to gather public testimony about legislative districts across the state.
“Tell us about your neighborhood, your religious group, your school district, your village and why as a community you should be kept together for redistricting,” said David Imamura, chairman of the commission.
In September, the commission, which is being used in the process for the first time, will publish an initial set of district maps and hold another round of public hearings to get more feedback from residents.
As reported at greater length in a separate story in some editions and online at qchron.com, Richmond Hill garnered the most attention for its six Assembly districts, which residents pointed out have the effect of splintering the Guyanese and Punjabi communities that live there. Another area that got a lot of attention was the nexus of Kew Gardens, Forest Hills and Rego Park, which are represented by four state senators and three assemblymembers.
“Seven state representatives and only one of them has a district office in central Queens,” said Maria Kaufer, a member of the Central Queens Redistricting Coalition, a group of residents, who have banded together to keep the area intact.
Kaufer said that the district lines make community organizing around school funding, among other political causes, difficult.
In both Central Queens and Richmond Hill, the critics argue that a splintered neighborhood makes politicians less responsive to constituents’ needs because it diminishes their ability to sway elections.
Other mentioned areas included Assembly Districts 34 and 35, Jackson Heights and East Elmhurst; the Sunnyside and Woodside portions of Assembly District 37; the Whitestone portion of AD 27; state Senate District 15, which snakes all the way from Ridgewood down to the Rockaways; and New York’s 3rd Congressional District, which groups parts of Little Neck, Whitestone, Glen Oaks and Floral Park into a district that is mostly on Long Island.
The commission, which was appointed by Democratic and Republican leaders in the state Legislature, will eventually submit its proposed maps to the Legislature, which can either approve the changes or reject and redraw them.
But neither the commission nor the Legislature will have free rein to redraw as they like. The nonpartisan group and electeds will have to follow rules set out in the federal Voting Rights Act and state Constitution that require districts to be compact and contiguous, and preserve “communities of interest,” among other guidelines.
One section of the Voting Rights Act that is aimed at insulating the electoral rights of racial groups and other protected classes gives courts the power, in some areas, to require the creation of majority-minority districts.
Jerry Vattamala, a lawyer and the director of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund’s Democracy Program, called the section on majority-minority districts a crucial tool for advocates.
“So if you can illustrate that to them, that’s very powerful,” he told the Chronicle.