When Election Day rolls around in November, many New Yorkers will be staring at new names and at new polling places to cast their ballots for their members of Congress.
The reason: Redistricting.
“The main reason for redistricting is to ensure population equality between districts,” said Morgan Cullen, policy analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that provides guidance to state governments.
Translation: Redistricting happens so that the areas of the country with the most people have the most representation. It’s done every 10 years, after the Census reveals population changes.
Based on the 2010 Census, New York state loses two Congressional seats, from 29 to 27. For Central New York, that means the three local Congressional districts have been reshaped and renamed. The changes are in effect for the 2012 elections, which begin with the state’s primary on June 26. The general election is Nov. 6.
The Constitution mandates that each state use census numbers collected every decade to redraw the geographical boundaries of areas ranging from the state senate to Congressional districts — any district in which officials are elected.
How states deal with redistricting can be controversial. On top of census data, redistricting committees follow state and federal laws, said policy analyst Cullen of the National Conference of State Legislatures. In 31 states, the state legislature oversees redistricting. In 13 states, outside parties oversee the process, he said.
“Redistricting is inherently political,” Cullen said. “The party in power is going to draw the lines to their advantage.”
In New York, the Republican-controlled senate and the Democratic-controlled assembly appointed a task force to redraw the districts. But the sharply divided legislature couldn’t agree on the new maps. The decision for how to redraw the maps ultimately came down to a panel federal judges, said Scott Reif, spokesman for the Senate majority.
“What essentially occurred was that the Senate and Assembly could not come to an agreement on how to redraw those lines,” Reif said. “So both submitted proposals to a special master who decided to draw those lines and impose them.” For Central New York, the changes look like this:
The new 21st Congressional District, formerly the 23rd Congressional District
In 2010, the district lost 3,965 people — or 0.6 percent of the population. Race and gender demographics did not change drastically.
The newly named 21st district has 396,310 registered voters. Of those, 29 percent — or 116,069 people — are registered Democrat, and 44 percent — or 174,028 people– are registered Republican.
Geographically, the district encompasses more of the region known as the North Country. It loses Oswego, Oneida and Madison counties and gains parts of Herkimer, Fulton, Essex, Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties.
The new 22nd Congressional District, formerly the 24th Congressional District
In 2010, the district lost 10,988 people — or 1.6 percent of the population. Race and gender demographics did not change drastically.
The newly named 22nd Congressional District has 404,901 registered voters. Of those, 33 percent — or 132,074 — areDemocrat, and 41 percent — or 165,909 — are Republican. Geographically, the district changed shapes.
It lost all or parts of Otsego, Ontario, Seneca, Tompkins, Cayuga, and Herkimer counties. It gained areas in Oneida, Madison, Oswego, Tioga and Broome counties.
The new 24th Congressional District, formerly the 25th Congressional District
In 2010, the district lost 649 people — or 0.1 percent of the population. Race and gender demographics did not change drastically.
The newly named district has 409,462 registered voters. Of those, 34 percent — or 138,796 — are Democrat, and 35 percent — or 143,110 — are Republican.
Geographically, the new district gains new areas. It now contains parts of Oswego and Cayuga County, but not Ithaca, as earlier drafts of redistricting plans had suggested.
Redistricting isn’t simple math. Lots of different factors played a role in the final lines for New York’s districts.
One of those factors is the 1965 Voting Rights Act that set up protections for minorities from unfair voting restrictions. It required the U.S. Census Bureau to collect very precise data on the population for use in redistricting and in order to ensure that minorities were equally represented. “Sometimes they need to get down to that one person, one vote,” said Cathy McCully, chief of the Census Redistricting Data Office. But after the numbers leave her office, the states must apply their own criteria, said McCully. “Usually it’s merged with other data like voter registration, voter turnout, any information to determine if it’s a good district,” she said.
To decide what makes a good district, experts suggest using principles like compactness, contiguity, communities of interest and keeping like with like, and nesting. These criteria deal with the shape and make-up of the districts — putting close geographical, political, economic and cultural areas together.
Redistricting won’t be ever be objective, said Grant Reeher, political scientist and director of the Alan K. Campbell Institute for Public Affairs at Maxwell School of Syracuse University.
“Some reform groups say there should be an independent process to draw districts,” Reeher said. “It’s not clear that you can or should take the politics out of politics. Who are the people who would redraw the lines otherwise? Are we more comfortable with them?” In a state like New York, the maps will always be blue, Reeher said. “New York is still going to be a heavily-Democrat state,” said Reeher. “Removing two seats isn’t going to change that.”
(Julie McMahon is a graduate student in magazine, newspaper and online journalism.)
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