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What's next for Onondaga County's new district map? Groups begin to weigh their options

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Onondaga County
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This is the GOP-drawn Onondaga County Legislature district map signed into law by the county executive before the new year.

Civil rights, government watchdog groups, and others are contemplating their next steps after Onondaga County’s new legislative district map was quietly signed into law right before the new year.  They’re not happy with how the process began and ended.

The New York Civil Liberties union is among those who’ve been watching closely how Onondaga County handled its redistricting process. Supervising attorney Perry Grossman says the first thing that caught his attention was how rushed it was, even though it didn’t have to be.

"This is a map for elections that will not occur until June 2023. To be trying to get a map together before the first week of November 2021, I don't understand what good reason could possibly be behind it."

He says the continuing rush to have a map in place by year’s end didn’t make sense, either. Grossman says limited convenient opportunities for public input was also a red flag.

Common Cause New York has also been observing the process. Executive Director Susan Lerner says the rushed redrawing of the map doesn’t appear to have resulted in districts that fairly represent where people live and work.

"The maps really have the classic appearance of gerrymandered maps; weird shaped districts that carve up cities and towns without any logic. And it appears to be drawn for partisan advantage, which under our state law is illegal," Lerner said.

"All indications from the little analysis we've been able to do doesn't reflect well upon them," Perry Grossman said.

He says the current 16th district is no longer majority African American. But lawmakers including former chairman Dave Knapp have said it still includes a majority minority population.

"The new state law talks about minorities in general; it does not break down by individual groups within minorities. From a minority standpoint, that district is well over 72 percent. The African American percentage is 48 percent, which by far makes it the largest individual group within that district," Knapp said in December prior to the legislature's vote.

The NYCLU’s Perry Grossman takes issue with Knapp's explanation.

"That sort of statement indicates racial stereotyping. The idea that different groups of color are going to vote alike just because they're groups of color; the idea that you can combine them just because they happen to be non-white without looking at whether and to what extent they are in fact politically cohesive."

He also wonders if anyone involved in the process considered voter turnout rates in the 16th or any other district.

"Are Black voters able to turn out at sufficient rates consistently that they are able to elect their candidates of choice. From the limited analysis that we've been able to do, it looks like the racial disparity in voter turnout favors white voters by a fairly large margin. And there's no indication that the legislature or county executive looked at those voting patterns."

Neither the NYCLU nor Common Cause would say if they’re pursuing litigation, but they have successfully challenged maps elsewhere. Grossman says they’re still conducting a thorough review.

"We're going to take the time to look at these maps, talk to the community, conduct the analyses that someone would need to know in order to determine whether there is voter dilution occurring here."

Meanwhile, Susan Lerner with Common Cause says the rushed, partisan process invites a detailed analysis, and perhaps even litigation. She says there is better way.

"It certainly underlines the need for a truly impartial independent redistricting process in Onondaga County, like the one we're seeing play out very well right now in Syracuse. That is a citizen led redistricting commission that is not beholden to any political party or any appointing power."

Lerner points to successful examples of independent redistricting, from California and Austin, Texas, which are in their second cycles, to the first time in Michigan. She says all drew legislative lines widely recognized as fair and nonpartisan.