Syracuse, NY – Onondaga County will attempt to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts now that county executive Ryan McMahon has vetoed a first set of maps approved by the county legislature.
McMahon’s veto message on Monday cited a technicality of state law. He made no mention of the controversy over what some critics called “racial gerrymandering”.
But McMahon told legislative leaders he wanted those concerns addressed before returning the cards for his approval, McMahon spokesman Justin Sayles said. Critics say the maps initially approved by the legislature diluted the vote for African Americans by eliminating the county’s only black-majority district.
It is a problem that the county leaders will want to resolve. Otherwise, the county could face a costly and difficult legal battle to defend its district maps against charges of racial discrimination, according to two legal experts consulted by Syracuse.com.
The controversy centers on District 16, the only predominantly African-American district among the county’s 17. The maps initially approved by the legislator would have reduced the black population there from 59% to 37%.
Eliminating a majority black district could open up the county to challenges under federal and state law, said Jeffrey Wice, voting rights expert, assistant professor and senior researcher at New York Law School.
Federal Voting Rights Law obliges governments, in certain circumstances, to create constituencies that offer minorities the opportunity to elect the candidates they prefer. In addition, a New York State redistribution law signed this year by Governor Kathy Hochul bans new cards that “reduce” the ability of racial or linguistic minorities “to elect representatives of their choice.”
The cards approved by the legislature on Nov. 12 – and vetoed by McMahon on Monday – could have sparked challenges on both fronts, Wice said.
“I think what the county legislature has done could be risky and face a legal challenge,” Wice said.
That said, the voting rights law is complicated and nuanced, so it’s hard to predict an outcome. Litigation is often long and expensive, said Michael Li, senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School.
There is no single solution that judges can rely on, Li said. Each case depends on the specific circumstances. When the case goes to court, each party typically hires political scientists to analyze local voting patterns to establish how constituency boundaries would affect the ability of African Americans to elect their preferred candidates.
When Albany County lost a 2015 federal lawsuit over redistribution maps that diluted minority voting power, the court ordered the county to pay plaintiffs $ 1.7 million in court costs. Adding in the county’s costs, the taxpayer bill was at least $ 2.2 million, the Times-Union reported.
“It’s not uncommon,” Li said. “Voting rights disputes are expensive. “
The federal law is nuanced to avoid one or the other of the two extremes, both discriminatory. On the one hand, governments should avoid dividing – or “breaking up” – minority-dominated constituencies in order to eliminate their majority and diminish their voting power. On the other hand, governments should avoid concentrating minority residents in fewer neighborhoods than necessary – or “clustering” – which diminishes the political clout of their representatives.
To further complicate matters, the question of who, in a particular circumstance, should be included in a minority voting group.
Republican leaders in Onondaga County defended the initial set of cards on the grounds that minority voters would still represent the majority in District 16 when the African American population was combined with other groups, including Asians, Biracial residents, Native Americans and others. Although the percentage of African Americans would drop from 59% to 37%, the combined minority populations according to the new map would total 59%.
But that argument won’t stand without proof that different minority groups are politically consistent and tend to vote the same, Wice said. Proof of this could only come from a thorough analysis of voting patterns.
“We don’t know if blacks, Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans vote the same,” Wice said. “You can’t group different racial groups together under the Voting Rights Act without checking to see if they vote consistently. “
The legislature’s first redistribution plan also created two more districts – 9 and 15 – where, for the first time, various minority groups, when combined, would constitute the majority of voters.
Typically, Li said, if a region’s electorate is racially polarized – that is, whether whites and blacks or other minorities tend to favor different candidates based on race – then federal law requires governments to create constituencies that provide minorities the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice, where possible. Details of the existence of racial polarization and that various minorities tend to vote as a coalition can be complicated to prove, he said.
“It’s much more difficult than some of the other (courts) cases that come up, because the Supreme Court made it district specific. It’s very detailed, ”he said.
This complexity provides a strong argument for counties to take their time with the redistribution, to provide clear explanations of the changes they are making and plenty of opportunities for comment, Wice said. Onondaga County, one of the first in the state to complete the process, is expected to take longer, he said.
“I think what the county did was rushed,” Wice said.
The county set up a six-member redistribution commission in October, a month after receiving the 2020 census data. Three weeks after their first meeting, the commission approved new maps, after holding five public hearings. Two of the hearings took place before the proposed maps were available for review.
Many public comments submitted to the Panel called for a longer process in order to have more time to study the proposed maps and provide comments.
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