Just when New Yorkers thought they’d had enough of redistricting, a new round of redrawing legislative maps has arrived.
This time, it’s the New York City Council’s 51 districts that are being redrawn by the city’s Districting Commission. New York City is faced with the task of updating its Council districts to reflect population changes in the 2020 Census. The new maps will go into effect next February, ahead of the next City Council elections that spring.
Another redistricting process might elicit groans in a state that just witnessed a contentious and chaotic redistricting process for state Senate, Assembly and Congressional lines that resulted in a split primary. People involved in the city’s redistricting process have said that this process will run much more smoothly, in part because it works differently than the state’s. For one thing, the city’s Districting Commission has final say over the maps, not the City Council.
With two public hearings scheduled for this week and a first set of maps expected to be released next week, City & State rounded up what you need to know about New York City’s redistricting process.
How does New York City’s redistricting process work?
The New York City Charter requires the city’s Districting Commission to redraw the council’s 51 districts every 10 years, factoring population changes in the census. The commission is made up of 15 members – seven appointed by the mayor, five appointed by the council’s Democratic majority and three appointed by the council’s Republican minority.
Those members are tasked with devising new boundary lines for the council districts, with strict criteria for each district’s population to be within a certain amount of the predetermined average population per district. As required by the Voting Rights Act, the districts can’t be drawn in a way that dilutes the voting power of racial and language minority groups. And the City Charter lays out other requirements, including that the new districts must be kept compact, the maps must avoid splitting up neighborhoods and communities of interest, and limit the number of districts that cross over into more than one borough.
But those 15 members – whose day jobs include attorneys, nonprofit leaders and professors – aren’t working alone. Redistricting Partners, a California-based firm that has also worked with the state Independent Redistricting Commission, is working with the city’s commission to actually draw the maps.
Dennis Walcott, the CEO of the Queens Public Library and the former chancellor of the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, is the chair of this year’s Districting Commission. He said that the map drawers are working not in silos but directly with the commission, including in training sessions with the commissioners. “It's been a very collaborative process, both between the (commission) staff who have expertise, the commissioners who have content knowledge and interest in representing their boroughs and the city, and the map drawers as well,” Walcott told City & State. Also key in that collaborative process, Walcott said, is input from residents, council members and other stakeholders like advocates and community groups. (More on that later.)
What’s the schedule for the city’s redistricting process?
New maps must be in place by next February, ahead of the City Council primaries in June 2023. The commission is in the middle of its first round of public hearings to hear testimony from residents, community leaders and even lawmakers who want to weigh in on what they want districts to look like and what communities they want to see kept together or even shifted into new districts. Hearings have already been held in Manhattan, Queens and Brooklyn, and two more in Staten Island and the Bronx are scheduled this week.
Following this initial round of public hearings, the commission is expected to release a draft map on July 15, Walcott said, which will trigger another round of public hearings in each borough currently scheduled for mid-August. That input will go into a plan that the commission submits to the City Council in September. If the City Council doesn’t object to that plan within three weeks, it is automatically adopted. If the City Council objects to the plan and requests changes, the commission goes back to the proposal and considers that feedback before releasing a revised plan to the public. Another round of public hearings on the revised plan begins before the commission votes on and submits a final plan to the city clerk. Through this process, the commission and not the City Council, holds the authority to vote on and approve a final plan.
What kinds of changes can New Yorkers expect to see in their districts?
New York City’s population grew by roughly 630,000 people between 2010 and 2020, according to the 2020 Census. That means the average size of each City Council district now has to grow too, to be drawn to include 172,882 residents in each district. The size of each district can deviate up to 5% around the average.
According to Redistricting & You, a mapping resource created by the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 36 current council districts are outside those bounds, with either too few or too many residents in those districts. While right-sizing districts, the commission has to keep in mind the requirements to keep districts compact and not dilute the voting power of racial and language minorities.
Perhaps most notably this year, the commission has to consider the sizable growth in the city’s Asian American and Pacific Islander population, and the growth in the city’s Hispanic population. The former grew by about 345,000 people and the latter by about 154,000 people.
At the public hearings so far, representatives of various communities of interest – communities with shared historic, racial, economic, ethnic, religious or other ties – have testified to call for a stronger voting voice in the new maps. At the public hearing in Brooklyn last week, one resident noted that the AAPI community in Bensonhurst is currently divided into four different districts. A Queens resident called for the creation of a majority South Asian district in Jamaica. And Council Member Alexa Avilés called in to voice her support for keeping the 38th district – which she represents – majority Latino.
Walcott declined to speculate on the specifics of the new maps, including whether they might include new majority AAPI or Hispanic districts, or what other changes might reflect that population growth. He also did not comment on how Staten Island’s current three council districts might change to reflect the fact that all three are currently under the average 172,631 population size. Joe Maligno, deputy executive director of the Districting Commission, has floated the “slight” chance that in the new maps, one of the borough’s districts will crossover into another borough, possibly into Brooklyn or Lower Manhattan.
What opportunities does the public have to weigh in on the city’s redistricting process?
The Districting Commission is encouraging New Yorkers to get involved by testifying in person at the public hearings, calling in remotely or submitting written testimony. That includes submitting their own proposed maps. “We don’t even care if it’s in pencil,” Walcott said. “We’re just trying to get that input.” The commission is set to hold public hearings on each version of maps that it releases before voting on and approving a final map.
The next public hearings will be held on Wednesday, July 6 in the Bronx, and on Thursday, July 7 on Staten Island. Information about how to attend the hearings in person or virtually, and on how to submit testimony, can be found here.