Redistricting, Gerrymandering, and You!

Do you like to win? Do you like feeling special? Do you like people always telling you how great you are? If you said yes to all these things-then you may enjoy being an elected official! Can you handle a base pay of $48,000 for a part-time job? If you are the head of some committees you make more money…and no one will actually ask you to do anything with those committees! Some bad things are that constituents may tell you how you have to do your job, they may yell, protest, critique or curse at you. They may publicly and personally say mean things about you. They may always question your motives and intentions. If you can emotionally regulate enough to handle this…on the other side are the benefits. You will get your own fully paid and maintained city car, great health insurance, after 10 years you are vested in the pension system, the power to support your favorite friends, etc. But to sum it all up, you will get access and preferential treatment.

If you were given the opportunity to make sure this would continue through a competition, wouldn’t you try to skew it in your favor?

Is this all sounding like an infomercial? Well, It’s not. Instead, this is the reality of being an elected official in Yonkers and how human an experience it is. If given the opportunity to do so, anyone can be tempted to stack the deck in their favor. We can all understand the experiential complexities of being human but being human is not always being fair and just, which are qualities we expect from elected officials.

A little bit of history

Starting in March 2020, we all experienced a collective trauma, our state was shut down and we were avoiding certain death. That was the same year the last census was conducted by the Federal Government. The Census is just a short survey to count all the residents of a municipality. There were videos all over social media of people that looked like you and me urging us to complete the Census so Yonkers could get more federal funding. Our Yonkers residents needed help being counted because this is what determines state and federal funding for the next 10 years. This survey was also the main driver that would now set forth the redistricting process.

Redistricting is a process through which we can reorganize voting districts for the various levels of government to ensure that people are more evenly distributed for voting purposes. There is a process every 10 years, following the census, utilizing the numbers to ensure more even districts. Thus redistricting is political in nature and specifically influences elections and election districts.

For those of you that do not understand the significance of redistricting: it determines who will represent you in local, regional, state and federal government. In the case of our state representatives, at one time Senator Shelley Mayer represented about half of Yonkers and now it is only about 10%. Our County Legislators also have very different districts. Currently, District 16 and 17 are entirely in Yonkers. District 14 and 15 share borders with other places like Bronxville and Mount Vernon and therefore incorporate parts of those places within their representation.

Now that we are caught up on redistricting – what is more important is gerrymandering?! Gerrymandering is drawing specific lines in order to favor a specific party or individual in elections. Currently, Yonkers has three times more registered Democrats than Republicans. Though the thought of creating districts in an uneven distribution to favor specific parties may seem wrong, it is not currently illegal.

What are the rules of Redistricting?

In 2021, New York Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation on rules related to fair redistricting. They are summarized as the following:

  • Districts are nearly equal in population. The smallest to largest district may only differ by 5% in population.
  • Districts are not drawn with the intent or result of denying equal opportunity of racial or language minority groups to participate in the political process.
  • Districts consist of contiguous territory – meaning you can’t create an island and attach it to a different district. It all has to touch.
  • Districts are not drawn to favor incumbents or any particular party or candidate.
  • Districts should be formed to promote orderly and efficient administration of elections.

How can this be gerrymandered to favor a political party or individual?

New York State created a bi-partisan Independent Districting Commission (BIDC) to manage state-level districts for Senate and Assembly seats. This BIDC was composed of individuals who were appointed by very partisan people. Our very own Deputy County Executive, who was the Former Yonkers Democratic Chairman is the Chairman of the BIDC. This Commission created maps that were then approved by the state legislature. This approval started the Westchester county redistricting process. Then Westchester County, a highly democratic legislature, picked a consultant, Simon and Wards to complete the new County maps. These maps were voted upon in December with the republican Legislator Jimmy Nolan’s 15th district looking geographically quite different. He now has a district that runs from the Hudson river on the edge of Yonkers to the complete other edge of New Rochelle incorporating Bronxville, Eastchester, and parts of Yonkers.

The city council then started their process in September 2022 by approving a consultant to conduct the redistricting. That contractor rescinded their offer and we then contracted Dr. Andrew Beveridge instead in Dec 2022. This is the same consultant who conducted Yonkers redistricting 10 years ago.

At our local Yonkers-level, we were presented with maps drawn by our consultant after several changes in January, just a few weeks before we had to finalize our districts. The current maps that were released to the public are not the original maps he originally presented to the council for review. Instead, the very people in elected positions who would represent these districts looked through the maps and got to input and change what districts they would want. For example, when City Council President Lakisha Collins-Bellamy stated she changed her own Election District back into the 1st Council District. It is only human nature to unfairly create circumstances where you would win, if given the opportunity, however this specific behavior affects us voters for the next 10 years. The very people who would be running in these districts got to choose what districts they would and would not want and even more, their decisions about their own runs would affect a generation of citizens who have not even yet gotten the right to vote. There were grumblings that even party leadership, specifically Yonkers Democratic Party chairman Tom Meier, was given access to these maps, when us citizens were not given access. Giving the City Council and political parties a say over the districts they will be running in, means that the candidates choose their voters, cut out their competition and voters have very little say over all of it.

The following suggestions would have improved this process:

  • Start with the local municipality and expand upward. This would help us finalize the building blocks for each district, much like laying the foundation of a house before building the walls and roof.
  • The City Council could do a city wide survey and town halls to seek our input as citizens of this city as to what we want, and don’t want before restricting starts!
  • The Census data has been available for since April 26, 2021. The council could have a meeting with their respective caucasus to put together points to make the redistricting process easier, more timely and with greater citizen participation.
  • The City Council could present the original maps, before the partisan input, and ask for citizen feedback before any changes.
  • Create a deadline months in advance of elections. If they created a deadline for themselves in early January to have the original maps completed, there is far more time for a corrective process instead of this rushed process we currently find ourselves in.
  • Meet with neighborhood community groups/Homeowners Associations to ensure they are not broken up by redistricting such as the Hyatt Association, HRCA, Lincoln Park Taxpayers association, etc…
  • We know that there is no language in the City Charter but this is a mandate so the Charter revision committee should create a referendum for us to put language into the charter.

Maybe it’s time for regular people who want to make a difference, connected to neighbors and with a history of careers outside of politics and government to run for office so that we can bring real world solutions to ensure a more efficient government.

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