On Friday, the Democratic members of the New Rochelle City Council proposed a draft plan for re-drawing local council district boundaries to conform with the results of the 2010 Census. You can learn about the draft redistricting plan and view maps of the proposed districts in this PowerPoint. You can read a summary of the plan’s features in this media release. And you can review demographic and methodological information in these three tables of statistics and this memorandum from Prof. Andrew Beveridge. If this subject interests you, then the PowerPoint is highly recommended.

The following post is divided into three sections: (1) notes on timing and process, (2) highlights and features of the proposed plan, drawing on some of the content of the power point and media release, and lastly (3) some personal observations about redistricting in New Rochelle.

Timing & Process

Official 2010 Census figures released last month for New Rochelle show that the balance of population among our council districts changed significantly during the past decade, with the largest district now nearly 25% more populous than the smallest. This wide disparity means that the City is legally required to redraw council district boundaries in order to balance district populations, thereby restoring equal representation for all residents.

Redistricting also presents an opportunity to address other legal requirements and community goals, including those related to minority voting rights.

Because a local election will occur this fall for a new four-year council term, the redistricting process must be completed on a tight time frame. New district lines have to be adopted by early May, so that the County Board of Elections can correct its voter and address lists, and so that prospective candidates can adequately plan their campaigns. A delay would keep in place the current unequal council district boundaries until January 2016.

Last month, Council Democrats outlined the general principles that ought to govern new district boundaries and suggested a process intended to be timely, efficient, and open to public scrutiny and input:

  • Scores of neighborhood association and civic group leaders have already been invited by letter to offer input on the desired features of a redistricting plan.
  • The City’s web page for redistricting provides information to the general public and invites comments to cityclerkinfo@newrochelleny.com.
  • The draft redistricting proposal submitted on Friday will be posted on the City website and another round of letters will be distributed to the same wide spectrum of community leaders.
  • The City Council will discuss the draft plan in public session on Tuesday, April 12.
  • The City Council will hold a public hearing on the draft plan on Wednesday, April 20.
  • If changes are made to the draft, revisions will be posted online and an additional public hearing will be held to consider the amended plan.
  • The Council will complete its work by May 10th at the very latest.

Highlights & Features

The proposed redistricting plan meets all relevant legal tests and also advances several important community objectives:

Equalize Population Among Districts: The proposed redistricting plan would balance the populations of New Rochelle’s six council districts, so that all are within 5% of the average.

Enhance Opportunities for Minority Representation: The proposed redistricting plan would raise the percentage of Non-Hispanic Blacks within council district three and would increase the African-American majority among district three’s eligible voters to 53%. The proposal would increase the Hispanic population of the most heavily Hispanic district by more than ten percentage points to 62%, with Hispanics comprising roughly a quarter of the district’s eligible voters.

Unite Neighborhoods: The proposed redistricting plan would keep more than 95% of New Rochelle’s neighborhoods entirely or substantially whole within single council districts. Several large areas of common interest, such as the West End and the East End, which are split under current district lines, would be united under the proposal.

Establish Compact Boundaries: The proposed redistricting plan would establish district boundaries that are more compact and regular in shape than those currently in place.

Again, you can learn much more in the PowerPoint.

Personal Observations

In most cases, redistricting is a subject about which people close to the political process are semi-obsessed and about which other folks are semi-indifferent. In New Rochelle, the first half of that statement may be true, but the second half probably isn’t. In fact, lots of our residents care intensely about redistricting. Why?

First, there’s our history. Council districts were first established in the early 1990s by public referendum. (Prior to then, council members were elected city-wide, like the mayor.) New Rochelleans supported a district system for a variety of reasons, but the primary motivation was to enhance opportunities for African-American representation on the city council, consistent with the Voting Rights Act. Ten years later, when the original district lines were redrawn after the 2000 Census, similar concerns about minority rights and interests became the basis for a protracted legal dispute that was ultimately settled by the establishment of the present council district boundaries. Issues of racial justice and equal opportunity pack a big intellectual and emotional punch, so it’s not surprising that many of our residents would take a keen interest in this year’s redistricting process.

Second, there’s the immediacy of it all. Sure, we know that boundaries get re-drawn every ten years for Congress and the State Legislature. And we know that those districts often have crazy shapes, inscrutable purposes, and partisan intent. But federal and state districts are comparatively large and tend to take in whole communities. Plus the process is so distant — off in Albany somewhere — that it seems like an abstraction, beyond our ability to follow or influence. By contrast, local council districts feel almost personal. “Why is this neighborhood connected to that neighborhood?” “Why is the house across the street from me in a separate council district?” “How did I end up in a district with a racial or ethnic majority to which I don’t belong?” These are the questions that New Rochelle residents are entitled to ask — and often do ask — about their council districts. When redistricting is so hyper-local, the issue almost literally lands on your front door.

Add the politics of a local election year, and you have a pretty potent brew.

One more thing to keep in mind. The legal requirements, community goals, and physical realities associated with redistricting are often in tension with each other. Many people imagine the ideal redistricting plan to be a series of equally sized boxes and assume that any deviation from such geometry means that something fishy is going on. That’s understandable, until you remember that human beings do not arrange themselves in tidy, evenly-spaced rectangles, minority housing patterns do not conform to neat boundaries, and neighborhoods often have funny shapes. Any redistricting plan entails a long series of trade-offs, and the ideal is never a real option.

So, all in all, not a fun job, and one guaranteed to anger as many people as it pleases. Nonetheless, it is our responsibility to do this. The Census revealed that a huge population gap had opened between council districts during the last decade, far in excess of 20%. We are, therefore, compelled to redistrict by both the demands of the law and by the principle of equal representation.

The colleagues with whom I worked to shape the redistricting plan were all committed to approaching this challenge in a fair, open, and transparent fashion. We have tried to learn the lessons of past mistakes, listen to the objectives and concerns of residents, and apply these as well as possible to a new political map for our city — with the hard, objective count of the Census serving as the final arbiter of what can and should be done.

I have no doubt that our plan will be criticized, maybe even in strident terms. Some of that criticism will be entirely legitimate (our plan is not perfect — there is no perfect plan — and reasonable people can disagree). Some of the criticism will be directed at single elements of the plan that are unfairly extracted and scrutinized in isolation (correcting one objectionable feature may necessitate a cascading sequence of other alterations that are even more objectionable). And some of the criticism will be based on pure partisan politics (I am sure that the talking points branding our plan “an outrageous gerrymander,” or some such phrase, are already written and are ready to be deployed regardless of our plan’s content.)

As you review our proposal and make up your own mind about its merits, I offer only one plea. Don’t think of the plan as a piece of art, to be evaluated by its appeal to the eye. Think of it instead as a jigsaw puzzle. Ask yourself if the pieces fit together logically and if they form a coherent and sensible whole. Judged by this standard, on balance, I think we did a pretty good job.

I welcome your comments.