It happens every 10 years: the statistics-heavy redrawing of the electoral map to reflect new Census population figures. This year in New York, that means carving up the state into 150 Assembly districts, 63 State Senate districts and 26 congressional districts.
It’s a process that is fraught with political implications, and it hasn’t always been transparent. Now advocates are aggressively seeking out the public’s ideas about redistricting—and a UB School of Law proposal is in the mix.
The students in Legislative Redistricting, a fall semester seminar taught by adjunct instructor Frank Housh ’93 have taken on the challenge. Working in teams, the five students—four second-year law students (Alize Allen ’23, Eric Klementowski ’23, Miranda Neyerlin ’23 and Zachary Schuler ’23) and one from UB’s Department of Geography (Brendan Kunz, M.S. Candidate) —developed criteria to guide their decisions, then created statewide district maps for the Assembly and the Senate’s review. Housh and his teaching assistant, third-year law student Roxanna Herreid ’22, drew the map of proposed congressional districts.
It’s an exercise in applying constitutional law, specifically the New York State Constitution, Housh says, as well as guidance from the federal appellate courts, including the U.S. Supreme Court.
“This is a civil rights class,” he says. “The students are learning about a particular area of civil rights, which is voting rights. One of the things I teach is that partisan gerrymandering is just another tool in the belt of disenfranchisement.”
To counter the self-serving tendency of officeholders to draw districts that will help them and their party get re-elected, the class identified some core values defining what they want their maps to accomplish. They want districts to be compact, for example, rather than spread out across wide areas. They want to preserve some existing boundaries of affiliation, trying for example not to divide towns across two or more districts, and maintaining concentrations of voters who are racial minorities. And they want to create districts that incorporate roughly equal measures of urban and rural voters, on the theory that this would hold elected officials accountable to a wider range of the electorate’s interests.
Herreid presented those goals on Oct. 20 in Buffalo at a public hearing of the state’s 10-member Independent Redistricting Commission, which will recommend a revised set of electoral maps to the State Legislature for approval. “These are the goals and the ideals that we went into the project with,” she says. “We wanted to see how we could create districts that were representative of more voters, and we wanted to keep communities together. We didn’t want to draw maps that favored any incumbent, and we were informed by that idealistic frame of mind.”
The commission members seemed receptive, she says; “I was surprised at how interested they were.” UB Law was one of several interested parties, including a handful of private citizens, offering recommendations to the commissioners.
The students are finalizing the maps for submission to the Independent Redistricting Commission, which will consider them along with all other public comments it has received. They’ll also enter the proposal in a competition sponsored by the Public Mapping Project, a nonprofit that created the open-source software the students used. There they have a reputation to uphold: a UB Law team won the competition in 2012 following the previous Census.