Nassau County Democrats renewed calls for the creation of an independent redistricting commission on Wednesday, a push that comes amidst the counting of the 2020 Census and its implications for the future balance of power in the legislature.
First introduced in late January by Minority Leader Kevan Abrahams (D-Freeport), the Democrats’ bill would create a nine-member commission free of government or political party officials to oversee the drawing of new legislative district boundaries. Abrahams said the current district map ensures that around 95 percent of incumbent politicians in the county are continually re-elected, a statistic the commission would remedy.
“We need a system in place where that changes, where we’re constantly evolving and we’re constantly bringing in new people into the process, and the elections are fair and people are accountable,” Abrahams said. “And if you don’t do the job of your legislative district then you couldn’t rely on this [current] map to get you into office.”
According to the bill, three members of the commission would be chosen by the Republican-majority legislature’s presiding officer and three would be chosen by the minority leader, with the last three chosen jointly by the two officials. Individuals who have served as an elected official, political party official, lobbyist or an employee of the county or state in the last three years would also be barred from serving on the commission.
Currently in the county, redistricting responsibilities fall to an 11-member board comprised of five voting members chosen by the leaders of each party. The last member is a non-voting chairperson chosen by the county executive, but ultimately, the legislature is still given final approval over the map.
This has led to political deadlocks in previous redistricting cycles and frustration among local activists, who argue the current system has resulted in widespread gerrymandering.
Lisa Tyson, director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition, noted that Nassau is “one of the most segregated communities in the country,” which is why redistricting is needed to restore a “belief in fairness.”
“The last redistricting plan continued segregation, it made it so regular people could not run for office and win,” Tyson said. “We need to change this and we need fair redistricting now.”
Abrahams was joined at the press conference by fellow legislators Arnold Drucker (D-Plainview), Delia DeRiggi-Whitton (D-Glen Cove), Debra Mule (D-Freeport) and Ellen Birnbaum (D-Great Neck), along with Josh Lafazan (I-Syosset). Drucker said the redistricting plan is necessary to reflect a county that has changed significantly since the legislature was first formed in 1994, and now has to address growing calls for reform.
“We’re at a turning point in our country’s history now where we do have to undertake and make very marked institutionalized change to the structure of how we govern and how we exist,” Drucker said. “This the first step in that regard.”
Republican spokesperson Christopher Boyle said in a statement that while the GOP majority will review the resolution, he did not indicate whether the caucus will call for a vote and instead questioned the timing of the push for one.
“It is difficult to understand why in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, fiscal crisis, and with thousands of residents still without power after the recent storm, the minority chooses to focus their energy on changing the county’s redistricting process,” Boyle said.
If passed through the legislature, the commission’s new map would take effect for the 2023 election cycle and be redrawn every ten years after, according to the bill. In determining the districts, the commission would also have to ensure new areas “respect communities of interest” and are “geographically compact and contiguous.”
In a Wednesday night tweet, Nassau County Executive Laura Curran praised the bill and said the current system benefits politicians more than the voters they serve by allowing legislators to “pick their voters.”
“Gerrymandering is a political curse – an incumbent protection program – which has left a deep stain in Nassau County that can only be lifted by drawing fair and representative district lines irrespective of party affiliation,” Curran said.