Two Distinct Types of NY Funders are Gearing Up for Redistricting, Here’s Why
By: Patricia A. Swann, Steering Committee Chair, New York State Census Equity Fund (NYSCEF) and Michael Hamill Remaley, consultant to the Fund.
Census and redistricting are inextricably linked because they are both about fair representation and the equitable distribution of government resources. A whole lot of funders across New York State came together around the 2020 Census, and now there are some very compelling reasons why many are getting engaged in the redistricting process. Some donors are even new to the Fund.
Designating the number of congressional districts for each state (apportionment) and organizing governing districts within each state (redistricting) are cornerstones of our democracy. In accordance with the US Constitution, apportionment happens after every census; state legislatures traditionally redistrict at the same time.
But apportionment and redistricting are often done behind closed doors in a highly partisan manner, resulting in gerrymandered districts that are drawn for incumbent electoral advantage rather than fostering cohesive communities that are able to vote for their common interests. Gerrymandering was elevated to an art form after the 2010 census, with partisan consultants taking full advantage of sophisticated mapmaking software and geocoded household data on everything from Google searches to magazine subscriptions. Gerrymandering happens in New York, too, though it is typically not among the states receiving the most media attention for their brazenly misshapen districts.
Over the past decade, New York City had an overall stable population, while surrounding counties saw population growth and upstate communities continued to experience significant population loss. It is likely that New York will lose at least one, possibly two, congressional seats. New lines will be needed to capture equal numbers of people in 26 (or 25) newly drawn districts. And we are likely to see major changes in state Assembly and Senate district lines based on population shifts.
Will the new district lines bring people with common concerns together? Or will the “communities of interest” concept be sacrificed to achieve partisan political goals?
As the funders associated with NYSCEF pivot from ensuring a fair and accurate census count to supporting organizations working for an equitable and transparent redistricting process, we are witnessing strong interest in our state in this next crucial stage of democracy from two distinct types of funders:
- Foundations located in places experiencing significant population loss or growth concerned about how newly redrawn lines either empower communities of interest or divide like-minded voters at the expense of more powerful interests.
- Foundations concerned about issues like education, health, economic development, and racial equity that depend on accurate community representation in Albany and Washington to ensure policies reflect the will of the people.
For the first time in New York, there is a Redistricting Commission to draw maps outside of what had been the domain of the state legislature. It is composed of eight political appointees and two at-large members named by the first eight. In addition to creating maps based on principles like compactness, respect for county lines, and “communities of interest,” the commission is required to hold at least twelve public hearings. New York must not waste this opportunity for meaningful community engagement.
While the amendment passed in 2014 that established the Redistricting Commission mandates public hearings on proposed maps, it doesn’t provide any funds to engage communities or systematically solicit public input on how they perceive neighborhood boundaries and where lines should be drawn. On a 2021/2022 timeline that is still evolving, the commission is mandated to release a draft set of maps and then hold public hearings for New Yorkers in the following locations: Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, White Plains, Bronx County, Kings County, New York County, Richmond County, Queens County, Nassau County, and Suffolk County.
NYSCEF is coordinating funders to support nonprofits working to ensure that the tremendous efforts that went into a fair and accurate census count is followed by an equitable and transparent redistricting process. NYSCEF is reconstituting its steering committee with funders especially interested in this next stage of democracy-building and with continued representation from across New York’s distinct regions.
NYSCEF’s goal is to distribute $700,000 to nonprofits for redistricting work across the state. NYSCEF also will make sure that funders have up-to-date information throughout the process. Grantmaking priorities will include:
• Public education and community mobilization
• Mapping projects and other technical resources
• Communicating with the commission and other officials involved in redistricting
• Documenting the process, and making recommendations for improvements
These activities are strictly nonpartisan and can all be supported with philanthropic dollars.
If you are a funder interested in redistricting and ensuring community voice in the process, we want to hear from you. NYSCEF coordinating consultant Michael Remaley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and NYSCEF Steering Committee Chair Patricia Swann is at email@example.com.
As an expert from the Brennan Center for Social Justice said at a NYSCEF funder briefing on redistricting in 2019, “If the Census is about being counted, [then] redistricting is about being heard.” Now is the time to mobilize philanthropic resources for nonprofits dedicated to ensuring community voices are at the table.