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State commission holds first public hearing on redistricting

A map of New York State's congressional districts, excluding New York City
NYS Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment
Current congressional districts in New York State, excluding New York City.

The New York State Independent Redistricting Commission on Tuesday held its first hearing to hear how New Yorkers want their new legislative districts redrawn.

The Zoom meeting was held with Long Island residents and was the first of eight opportunities for public input. The series will end with the Buffalo-Rochester region on Aug. 12. One additional hearing for statewide communities of interest will be held at a later date.

New York is set to lose a congressional seat after the state fell 89 people short in the 2020 census. The call for public input is a departure from previous redistricting commissions, which have operated largely in secret and have been accused of gerrymandering districts to benefit the political party in power.

Bob Keeler, a retired Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for Newsday, spent much of his career writing about voting rights. Keeler said it is imperative that communities are not broken up if the lines are redrawn.

"One of the bedrock principles of fair reapportionment is the need to honor communities of interest by not splitting a village or city or school district arbitrarily between legislative districts," Keeler said. "Too often the less-than-noble purpose of that splitting is to protect the incumbency of a public official who belongs to the party that's doing the redistricting."

Keeler said an example of this is the current divide in the state Senate between Stony Brook Children's Hospital and Brookhaven National Labs, two institutions fed by science and technology programs at Stony Brook University.

Shoshana Hershkowitz, the founder of Suffolk Progressives, said gerrymandering has existed on Long Island for far too long.

"Generally what we're asking for is a fair and equitable process that no longer disenfranchises communities of color, and allows us to pick our elected leaders rather than the other way around," Hershkowitz said.

She remembered canvassing in Gordon Heights, a dense community of color that
was divided into three districts, which she said suppresses that community's voice.

The commission will release preliminary district plans in September. After receiving additional feedback, it will introduce them to the state Legislature in January.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.