Author: Rachel Barnhart
If you live on the north side of Crawford St. between Mt. Vernon and Meigs St., you live in the 56th State Senate District, represented by Joe Robach. Your neighbors across the street are in the 61st State Senate District represented by Mike Razenhofer. The people who live behind you on Linden St. are also in the 56th, but their neighbors across the street are in the 55th State Senate District represented by Rich Funke. (Look up your address here.)
This little swath of the South Wedge is where three state senate districts meet. It’s how an overwhelmingly Democratic city came to be represented by three Republican state senators.
The lines were drawn in 2012 during redistricting, the once-a-decade process of drawing lines for congressional and state legislature seats. Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed the majority parties in the assembly and state senate to each draw their own district lines. The result is maps – filled with bizarre shapes — that contain mostly “safe” districts, places where one party dominates and challengers from another party don’t have much a chance. In effect, state lawmakers were allowed to choose their voters. The incumbents are further protected by the campaign finance system that rewards those in power.
In Rochester, this partisan redistricting disenfranchised Democrats, and city residents in general. Instead of only one or two Democrats who can focus mainly on the city’s needs, we have three Republican voices responsible for broad geographic areas. The 61st District extends to the Buffalo suburbs. The 55th goes from Irondequoit down to Naples. Only the 56th district is wholly within Monroe County.
Under redistricting laws in New York, towns are generally protected from being divided. Cities, however, end up on the chopping block because of the “block on border” rule. (See pages 32-33 for an explanation of this complicated rule.)
Buffalo and Syracuse each have two state senators representing their cities. They each have one Democrat.
It should be noted Rochester gets $200 less per capita in direct state aid than Buffalo, and it has to pay its school district $49 million more. Is that in part because of our three-way representation? There’s no way to know.
We have only two more elections with these district lines. They’ll be redrawn in 2022, based on the 2020 census. Despite a state constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014 that mandates nonpartisan redistricting, NYPIRG believes the legislature can still rig the system because the law has too many loopholes. (See pages 21-25 for NYPIRG’s analysis of the amendment.)
Making matters worse, unless a Democrat challenger beats a Republican incumbent in 2018 or 2020, Rochester will have no one at the state senate’s budget and redistricting tables. That’s because the state senate is expected to go Democrat, and Rochester’s three Republican state senators will be in the minority and out of power.
Gerrymandering has consequences. It disenfranchises groups of voters. It limits choices. It’s one of the reasons New York has one of the lowest voter turnouts in the country. Citizens have caught on to the fact their votes may not matter in some of these contests. That’s why it’s imperative to have real, independent redistricting that ensures all citizens have a voice – especially those in the city.