A coalition of nonpartisan groups last week called on the Nassau County Legislature to overhaul its redistricting process, which occurs every decade following the release of census data to account for population shifts.
On Jan. 27, more than a dozen people from the Nassau United Redistricting Coalition gathered on the steps of the Theodore Roosevelt Executive Building in Mineola to make their voices heard. Chanting, “Put voters first!” the group decried last year’s redistricting process, which reconfigured the county’s 19 legislative districts.
“The system is broken in Nassau County,” said Steve McFarland of the Long Island Civic Engagement Table. “We have a redistricting system that puts partisan interests over the needs and interests of communities and voters.”
Other groups that joined the coalition included the League of Women Voters of Nassau County, Common Cause New York and La Fuente Long Island Civic Participation Project.
McFarland announced the results of a survey his organization conducted on redistricting, saying that 81 percent of residents would prefer a citizen-controlled process. He also said that average voters want their communities kept together in a legislative district.
Last year’s redistricting process drew much ire from the coalition as well as Nassau County residents. An advisory commission tasked with the job did not present a unified plan to the Legislature; instead, the Republican and Democratic members of the committee submitted two different plans. Ultimately, a modified Republican plan was approved by the Legislature, by a vote of 10-9 along party lines. The new districts took effect on Jan. 1.
Critics of the process said that the plan divided many communities, and was designed to protect the Republican majority. Backers of the new map said it met all constitutional requirements, and added a minority district in the west end of the county.
The next time redistricting will be dealt with will be 2023, but members of the coalition say now is the time to change the county charter. They said they want a system that is fairer to voters.
Barbara Epstein, co-chair of the League of Women Voters, said that sections of the county charter that address redistricting contradict each other, a problem that must be addressed. She agreed with McFarland that the redistricting process is broken, but she insisted that it is not beyond repair. “Our County Legislature can take the first step toward reform,” she said.
The coalition’s plan calls for a redistricting commission that would be one-third Republican and one-third Democratic. The rest of the commission, which the coalition recommended to be set at nine members, would be independents.
Lauren Corcoran-Doolin, a spokeswoman for the Democrats, said there were concerns among legislators as to how those independent members would be selected, but, she added, these are ideas that could be worked out as the process moved along. “It’s certainly nice to start the dialogue,” she said.
The coalition presented its proposal to the Legislature at its Jan. 27 meeting, with several members coming forward to urge legislators to give it a fair shake. Frank Moroney, who chaired last year’s redistricting commission, said it is an idea that warrants consideration.
“Nothing is perfect, and everything can be improved,” Moroney said of the current redistricting policy, adding that there needs to be a discussion of whether changes are necessary. Ultimately, he said, revisions to the county charter are policy judgments by the Legislature.
Moroney said that such changes are few and far between, and for that reason must be given much thought and consideration. That’s why, he said, it is good that the coalition is presenting its proposal years before the next round of redistricting will take place. “If there is going to be charter changes,” he said, “earlier is more beneficial.”
Kevan Abrahams (D-Hempstead), the Legislature’s minority leader, said the coalition’s plan has merit, and that he was disappointed with last year’s redistricting process, which he described as rushed and failing to keep the people in mind.
“We’re definitely interested,” Abrahams said of the coalition’s plan. “Anything that gives the residents more of a voice, we’re going to be for. It would open the government to the people of Nassau County.”
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