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AND REAPPORTIONMENT ON THE LATFOR DATA RELEASE AUGUST 4, 2011
(written testimony submitted after August 4, 2011 hearing)
For more information, contact: Bob Cohen, Esq., Policy Director Citizen Action of New York 94 Central Avenue Albany, NY 12206 (518) 465-4600 (ext. 104) email@example.com www.citizenactionny.org
Chairmen Nozzolio and McEneny and members of the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR). My name is Bob Cohen. I am the Policy Director of Citizen Action of New York, a statewide membership organization that advocates for racial, social, economic and environmental justice with chapters or affiliates in seven communities throughout New York State. Thank you for holding this hearing. Our state needs and deserves fair redistricting this year that gives the citizens of New York the representation they deserve in the halls of power here in Albany. It is also critical that district lines be drawn that respect communities of interest, with a preference for keeping urban communities within a single legislative district. Citizen Action believes that a fair redrawing of the legislative district lines in New York can only be done by individuals who do not have any self-interest in the results. Thus, the law in New York State ought to be that legislative districts are drawn not by legislators, but by an independent commission. So I speak to you first in your roles as members of the Legislature, to urge you to support the passing of legislation to abolish LATFOR in favor of the independent commission New Yorkers deserve. We believe that ending the current system would be a major step towards ethics in government which voters throughout New York would no doubt widely applaud. Creation of an independent commission can be done in a special session in the fall, which seems likely to occur anyway given the need to address other urgent issues such as the PEF contract and the creation of a health benefit exchange under the federal Affordable Care Act. Whether or not an independent commission is created, it is critical that the laws as they are currently written be adhered to by state policymakers. As you know, last year, legislation was enacted to require that incarcerated New
Yorkers be counted where they ought to be counted: in the communities where they resided before their incarceration. However, it was recently reported that some members of LATFOR had suggested that they did not support LATFOR following the 2010 law, but instead support using the old system which has contributed to the underrepresentation of many communities in New York, especially urban areas. It LATFOR does in fact continue in the role of drawing the new legislative districts, then it is imperative that you follow the “prisonbased gerrymandering law” in doing so, and count imprisoned New Yorkers at their home addresses, not as residents of the town where they are incarcerated. The media reports that at least some members of LATFOR were not committed to complying with the “prison-based” gerrymandering law obviously caused us great concern. However, I was very relieved to hear the clear assurances during the August 4th hearing from at least three legislators on both sides of the aisle - including both LATFOR co-chairs - that these media reports did not reflect their views, and that LATFOR does in fact intend to count those incarcerated in their home communities. I’d like to thank you for your commitment today, and your recognition of the importance of adhering to a statute that was passed last year, irrespective of whether individual members of LATFOR supported the bill when it was considered by the Legislature. From the perspective of Citizen Action, this is a basic question of human rights. Those incarcerated do not leave their homes by choice, and upon release they are likely to return to those homes. Data indicates that people are generally incarcerated only for a relatively short period of time, and then return to the communities where they lived prior to incarceration. They do not
have a right to vote while in prison, so there is no justification for counting them as voters there. They deserve to be counted in the communities that they have been and will be a part of, not the communities outside of their prison walls. Just as critically, counting prisoners where they are incarcerated disenfranchises residents of the communities where they lived before their incarceration. These residents have committed no crime but nevertheless see their electoral power diminished by maps which count their neighbors as residents of a town that is generally far away. This is also an issue of racial justice: many of the districts whose voting strength would be diluted if prisonbased gerrymandering is continued are communities of color and low-income communities. Thank you once again for holding this hearing and the opportunity to testify today on the critical subject of fair redistricting.