Lawmakers push redistricting hearing participation

Protesters attends a rally for “Fair Maps” on March 26, 2019, in Washington, DC. New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission has started preliminary listening sessions to start drawing new maps for state Senate, Assembly and Congressional elective boundary lines. Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images/TNS

New Yorkers should provide input in upcoming preliminary hearings, lawmakers said, as commissioners begin to draft the state’s new elective district maps after a round of listening sessions continued Thursday.

Commissioners held the first of eight virtual hearings in Nassau and Suffolk counties on Tuesday for more than two hours seeking public comments on what areas or communities should be grouped together within state Senate, Assembly or Congressional districts.

“I thought it went great,” Redistricting Commission co-executive director Doug Breakell said of the first session, which featured about 30 participants. “We want as much participation as possible in the short time we were able to offer the virtual listening tours. We want participation — we always want more.”

The commission will continue with a listening session in Queens County on Thursday with hundreds of expected participants to extend until at least 7 p.m.

The state is mandated to draw new Assembly, Senate and Congressional district lines once per decade after the completion of the U.S. Census that reflects population and demographic changes.

Residents advocated with commissioners on Tuesday to keep communities in election districts together based on population growth or reduction, or communities of interest based on employment, religious faith or other factor that bonds residents.

“We want to hear what makes your community what you like about it and what you don’t like about the current map, what you’d like to see,” Breakell said. “What’s wrong with the current districts we live in?”

The commission will hold a joint hearing for the Mid-Hudson Valley and Capital Region on Aug. 2, and the North Country and Mohawk Valley regions Aug. 5.

An Aug. 9 hearing will follow for the Southern Tier and Central New York. The final listening session will take place for the Finger Lakes and Western New York on Aug. 12

“The commission made a decision that community engagement should be of utmost importance,” Breakell said. “A community of interest is not defined, whether it’s based on agriculture, or we all go to the same general store... tell us what’s great about your community. What does your community feel it’s about? Why should they remain together?”

Residents in Columbia and Greene counties have spoken with local representatives about where they think elective boundaries should reside. Most residents have voiced support to keep the counties, often referred to as the Twin Counties, together to most easily save taxpayer dollars and advocate for shared services.

“For the first time ever, New Yorkers have a say in actively participating in the effort to redraw the lines of state legislative and congressional districts,” said Sen. Michelle Hinchey, D-Saugerties. “These preliminary hearings provide an important forum for people to make their voices heard about the need to keep their communities together and prevent the disenfranchisement of communities of color. These testimonies will help inform the commission as they begin to receive Census data and start to draft new district lines.”

Staffers work with each person, who will have three minutes to speak, to schedule their testimony. The commission divides people into panels of 10 speakers to last about a half-hour each.

“If they can’t articulate their community of interest in that three minutes, we fully encourage them to submit it in writing,” Breakell said. “Many have submitted in writing already.”

Submit written testimony, maps or graphics on the commission’s website at nyirc.gov. Written statements will go on the commission’s record to draft the first public maps by Sept. 15.

The eight preliminary hearings will maximize public participation in the redistricting process and hasten the process for commissioners delayed from starting to draw new maps because of months of state funding issues and U.S. Census data delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The sessions are not constitutionally mandated. A second set of mandated hearings will take place across the state in the fall to amend the draft maps.

The release of detailed, block-level census data was delayed until August due to the COVID-19 pandemic, deepening commission setbacks.

Lawmakers from around the state have encouraged constituents to participate in the continuing listening sessions with commissioners so the group draws the best, most accurately representative maps for the next decade.

State legislators drafted and approved the maps until voters in 2014 largely approved a change to the state Constitution creating the 10-member bipartisan commission.

“Creation of an Independent Redistricting Commission took power away from politicians and put it in the hands of citizens to help ensure that no region of the state, special interest or political party gains an unfair advantage, and helps create balanced government and representation for the next 10 years,” said Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon. “This historic reform, overwhelming approved by voter referendum, creates a redistricting process that is more open and transparent, but it only works if citizens themselves stand up and make their voices heard as the commission begins redrawing district lines.”

Residents can share visual aids as part of their testimony. A person can indicate needing available translations services when registering to testify.

To register to testify, to contact the commission or for more information, visit nyirc.gov. Hearings will be livestreamed, archived and posted on the commission’s website.

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