Opinion: Nassau County redistricting must not dilute minority voice

Hundreds of community members attended a rally in Hundreds of community members attended a rally in Hempstead opposing the GOP redistricting plan for the Nassau County Legislature. Photo Credit: Danielle Finkelstein, 2011

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Another year, another apparent attempt to dilute the voting power of African-American, Latino and immigrant voters on Long Island.

Every 10 years, New York's counties must redraw political boundaries to reflect changing population patterns revealed in the newest census. The new districts must contain roughly the same-sized populations and be as compact as possible, while not diluting racial and ethnic minority representation. Ideally, they should also seek to keep together "communities of interest" -- that is, groups living near one another with commonalities such as racial and ethnic background or economic interests.

Yet last year, legislators in Albany passed a State Senate map that carved up Nassau and Suffolk communities -- like Hempstead, Brentwood, Wyandanch and Elmont -- and keeps communities of color from voting together. These communities responded with loud protest. Now, Nassau County's temporary redistricting commission -- unable to produce a single map for public review -- has released two maps, one from the Republican-appointed members and the other from the Democratic-appointed members. The caveat here is that the Democratic commission members represent the minority party in the legislature, and the map must have Republican support to pass.

Unfortunately, there is a dangerous recent precedent when Republicans in the Nassau legislature tried to flout their own legislative procedures -- by attempting to leapfrog over the mandated timeline by a full year -- and pass a map that would have further entrenched their legislative majority at the expense of the electoral strength of communities of color.

The 2011 Nassau map was manipulated for political gain by carving out absurdly shaped districts, rife with jagged outcroppings and clefts. Arguably most problematic was the intentional division of Elmont, a community with a rapidly growing contingent of racial and ethnic minority residents, who now make up over 77 percent of Elmont's population. The intent appeared to be reducing the voting power of these communities.

The new proposal by the Republican appointees isn't much different from the 2011 version in ignoring traditional redistricting criteria and attempting to manipulate the 2010 census data to water down the majority-minority districts -- even though nonwhite residents are now 30 percent of Nassau's population.

The new map proposals, from both Republicans and Democrats, were released less than a week ago, and the only public hearing is set for Thursday at 6 p.m. at the Legislative Office Building in Mineola. While some public hearings were held in 2012 to give input to the redistricting commission, the proposed maps do not reflect the public's feedback. Now we're being offered only one hearing before the maps are due to the legislature, by Saturday.

Redistricting commission members said they wouldn't try to resuscitate their 2011 proposal, but similar weird shapes and splits have in fact been proposed again by the Republican members.

In hyperpartisan Nassau County, each party's representatives on the commission drew maps that will help them achieve a majority in this fall's county legislative elections -- and every two years through 2021. And they're doing this at the expense of African-American, Latino and immigrant voters, even though their population growth entitles them to increased representation.

A coalition of advocacy and community groups -- including La Fuente Long Island Participation Project, the League of Women Voters, LatinoJustice PRLDEF, Common Cause New York, the New York Civil Liberties Union, and the Long Island Civic Engagement Table -- will propose an alternative map that would more fairly represent all Nassau County communities. We're prepared to take the necessary legal action to prevent any map that dilutes minority voting strength in violation of the federal Voting Rights Act.

Aubrey Phillips is an Elmont resident who was a co-plaintiff in the 2011 Nassau redistricting lawsuit. Juan Cartagena is the President and General Counsel for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a Manhattan-based national advocacy group.

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