The future of legislation sought by the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community could hinge on whether New York State Senate districts are redrawn by the members of that body or by an independent commission.
“There’s a whole bunch of other stuff that needs to get done,” said Michael Gianaris, a Democratic state senator who represents part of Queens, at an October 26 meeting on redistricting sponsored by the Stonewall Democratic Club of New York City, a gay political group.
With a governor, Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who has been a staunch ally of the queer community and a State Assembly that is dominated by Democrats, legislation, such as the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act (GENDA), a bill that would bar discrimination based on gender identity and expression, hinges on the State Senate, which is currently controlled by Republicans in a slim 32 to 30 majority.
Current state law has the 150-member Assembly and the Senate drawing their own districts. Each body then approves the other’s plan. The governor must sign those plans. Surprising no one, the result of that scheme is that each party maintain control of its chambers because every ten years, when redistricting occurs, legislators draw district maps that are made up mostly of their party’s voters.
Some data suggests that Democrats should control both houses. As of April 1 of this year, there were 5.2 million Democrats and 2.7 million Republicans registered to vote in New York. In the 2010 elections, Democrats cast a half million more votes statewide than Republicans.
“The State Senate is not Republican because voters picked them,” Gianaris said. As more than one panelist said at the meeting, which was held at the LGBT Community Center, with redistricting, incumbent legislators pick their voters.
This year, Cuomo introduced legislation that would have an independent commission draw the lines for state legislative and congressional districts on next year’s ballot, but neither the Assembly nor the Senate has moved on that bill. Cuomo has threatened to veto any plan that is drawn by legislators. Two-thirds of the senators must vote to override a veto, and Senate Republicans could probably not find those 42 votes. The prospects for a stalemate mean that drawing the maps would be done by the courts, either state or federal.
“We don’t know who is going to win,” Gianaris said. “We don’t even know who is going to draw the lines.”
Redistricting is not just an issue for New Yorkers. Every state is redrawing the maps for their legislatures and US House seats based on the 2010 Census. How those maps are drawn could have an impact on the community’s ability to enact state and federal legislation for the next decade. Republicans, who are generally hostile to the community’s interests, control 25 state legislatures and Democrats control 15. The remaining states have divided control and one, Nebraska, is nonpartisan.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 21 states have commissions that create their state legislative and congressional districts, an approach that could disrupt the tendency of politicians to draw district maps that protect incumbents or one party. In many cases, however, the commissioners are appointed by the elected officials who would benefit from or be hurt by the maps drawn.
While the 1965 Voting Rights Act provides guidelines that can result in districts more likely to elect an African-American or Latino candidate, the LGBT community is not a protected class in that federal legislation.
“LGBT is not considered under the Voting Rights Act, so there is no legal recourse,” said Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
As a group with common interests, the community could lobby for districts that would be more likely to elect an openly LGBT person.
“That’s the essence of redistricting,” Gaskins said. “Communities of common interests.”
The community generally pays little attention to redistricting, and this year is no exception. The Empire State Pride Agenda, New York’s leading gay lobby, did not respond to an email inquiring about any efforts it was making on redistricting. In past elections, the Pride Agenda has often pushed for more Democrats in the State Senate, though that tradition has been complicated by the critical support four Republicans senators provided to the marriage equality victory in June.
Nationally, the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay lobby, and the National Stonewall Democrats, a gay political group, did not respond to emails on their redistricting work.
While gay groups in Illinois and California are known to have participated in redistricting plans this year, it appears that most LGBT organizations have not weighed in.
Gary J. Gates, a scholar at the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law and a leading demographer of the queer community, said he had received few requests for data.
“I’ve had a few questions come my way, but one of the problems was that the Census 2010 same-sex couple data (really the only data source that allows you to get any sense of localized differences in the prevalence of the LGBT community) were made available too late in most state processes,” Gates wrote in an email, noting that for those states working faster than New York on establishing their new lines, “there was not much recent data available to inform redistricting.”
Other panelists at the Stonewall event were Timothy Gay, deputy chief clerk of the New York City Board of Elections, and Jerry Skurnik, a founder of Prime New York, a political consulting firm.