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Where Do We Draw the Lines?
As the date for Albany County’s legislative elections draws closer, the shape and makeup of the districts remains unclear

More than a week after a federal magistrate cited flaws in Albany County’s redistricting process and halted this fall’s legislative elections until the voting maps are redrawn, the county has done little to correct the problem.

On July 7, U.S. Magistrate Judge David R. Homer said that the Albany County Legislature unfairly tweaked its 39 legislative districts—benefiting the county’s Democratic majority by taking representation from minority communities—during the highly political redistricting process. The judge’s decision was a recommendation to U.S. District Judge Norman A. Mordue, who is expected to decide shortly whether the maps need to be redrawn.

Redistricting occurs roughly every decade in accordance with demographic changes based on the U.S. Census. Homer agreed with the plaintiffs—including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Coalition—who claimed that the number of voting districts containing a majority of minority voters should have increased in accordance with a rise in the county’s minority population.

The county’s disputed plan included three voting districts with minorities making up the majority of voters, but the plaintiffs said the population increase called for the creation of a fourth minority-majority district.

County legislator Lucille McKnight (D-Albany) introduced a bill at Monday’s (July 14) meeting that included a redistricting plan drafted by the plaintiffs, which would create a fourth minority-majority district, but the legislation was quickly shuffled into the county’s redistricting commission despite cries for debate and a vote from the body’s Republican minority. Although the plaintiffs and county Republicans wanted to see the bill passed Monday night, McKnight said she had other reasons for introducing the bill.

“I put the motion in so we could get the ball rolling,” McKnight. “I think people were pissed—they thought it was going to get passed—but all I was doing was trying to get things going. I just hope they really understand now that we need to get going and redraw the lines.”

McKnight faulted the legislature’s redistricting commission for not meeting with her constituents to begin the redistricting process again prior to Monday’s meeting.

“What are they doing? As of [Monday] night [the redistricting commission] hadn’t planned any meetings, they had nothing,” McKnight said. “You would think they would have scheduled one as soon as they got that report from the judge. I mean let’s go back to the drawing board, folks. We need four districts and here they are with no meetings planned or nothing.”

Sean Ward (D-Green Island), who heads the county’s redistricting commission, said he is looking to speed the process along as quickly as possible to ensure that the fall’s coming elections receive minimal disruption.

“We certainly want to move this along so as not to affect the upcoming elections,” said Ward. “I would be presumptuous to give an exact date [as to when the news maps will be finalized], but soon is the word of the day.”

As of Monday, Ward did not know when his commission would next meet to decide the future of Albany County’s district maps. Ward did say that his commission ordered the county attorney to move forward with a response to the suit, also filed on Monday.

“Judge Homer made changes to how we’re supposed to draw the lines,” Ward said. “We object to his findings, but we’ll move toward a settlement.”

Albany County Attorney Michael Lynch filed a number of objections with Homer’s decision and asked the U.S. district judge to reject the lawsuit.

Lynch disputed a number of Homer’s decisions claiming, among other things, that the number of minority residents was improperly tallied and did not increase enough to justify the creation of a fourth minority-majority voting district.

But Paul DerOhannesian, attorney for the plaintiffs, expressed some confusion at the multiple messages being presented by the county.

“We were somewhat confused,” said DerOhannesian. “Sean Ward said they would go ahead and create a fourth district, but [the legislature] indicated [Monday night] that they refuse to accept [our] plan. But they’re also saying things like, ‘Oh, Albany can’t provide for four minority-majority districts and there is not [racially] polarized voting in the city.’ So they’re talking right and walking left.”

—Travis Durfee

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