Empowering Voters. Defending Democracy.

VOTERS FIRST – Five New York Counties to Learn From Westchester County [1]

Redistricting Process:

  • County level redistricting in Westchester is done expressly by the Legislature itself. Moreover, the Legislature is not compelled to undertake redistricting at all. The charter language reads: “The County Board shall, if necessary, after each decennial federal census…adopt a local law amending subsection 1 of this section to prescribe County Board district. Such local law shall comply with the legal requirements for equal representation and representation areas prescribed in such local law be of convenient and contiguous territory in as compact a form as practicable”
    • And that is all the Westchester County Charter has to say about redistricting. No hearings or process outside of the normal bill-passing process is required.
  • Westchester County does, however, have non-binding tradition of convening an informal advisory committee. The League of Women Voters of Westchester took part in this advisory committee in both 2001 and 2011
  • Criteria: No criteria for redistricting specified in the charter
  • Transparency/Public Input: No specific process of public hearings or requirements for transparency in redistricting are outlined in the charter.

–         2011 Experience:

  • According to the League of Women Voters, the Democratic Majority in the Westchester County Board of Legislators largely disregarded the advisory committee and rushed through the redistricting process in Spring 2011, approving a plan that did not make radical changes to the map but made a few changes that Republicans found objectionable.[2]
  • The League spoke out against the process, citing the lack of transparency and the questionable partisan motives of the decisions. Nevertheless, the plan was approved 12-5 along party lines by the Democratic majority.
  • County Executive Rob Astorino (R) vetoed the plan,[3] calling it “flawed, closed-door, and rushed” but the Board of Legislators overrode the veto and passed the plan anyway.[4]

–          Lessons Learned from Westchester County:

  • Majority will nearly always gerrymander if given the opportunity
    • Despite a tradition of transparency and an orderly, fair process, the Westchester County Charter has no provisions establishing any kind of open process or fair criteria for redistricting.
      • The experience in Westchester once again demonstrates that without clear, binding language in the charter, the majority party will typically not be able to resist the temptation to gerrymander.
    • In their statement on the Westchester county redistricting process of 2011, the League of Women Voters noted “Our experience clearly shows why independent entities, rather than legislators, should be in charge of reallocating electoral district seats after a census.”


Erie County[5]

–          Redistricting Process:

  • County politicians appoint a 15 member Advisory Committee that delivers a report and recommended plan to the Legislature. As its name implies, the committee is only advisory and the Legislature is not bound to follow its recommendations.
    • Appointment Process: 5 politician-members: the Chairman of the County Legislature of his/her designee, the majority and minority leaders of the Legislature or their designees, and the two commissioners of the Board of Elections or their designees. 10 citizen members “representing interested community groups” with five appointed by the majority leader and five appointed by the minority leader.
  • Timeline:
    • During the first two months of the year following census year, the Chairman gives notice of the committee’s formation.
    • Committee is formed within the first three months of the year after the Census.
    • Once it is formed, the Committee has 60 days to submit its report to the County Legislature.
    • County Legislature can give the committee an extra 30 days if they choose to.
  • Criteria: No criteria for redistricting specified in the charter
  • Transparency/Public Input: No specific process of public hearings or requirements for transparency in redistricting are outlined in the charter.

–          2011 Experience:

  • In 2011, the Erie County Legislature decided to downsize from 15 districts to 11 districts. At the time, the County Legislature had a nominal 9 to 6 Democratic majority but 3 Democrats broke ranks to caucus with Republicans (similar situation to the current Republican-IDC control in the State Senate in New York)
  • The Advisory Committee ended up being controlled 8 to 7 by Republicans and the breakaway Democrats and it produced a map that was approved in an 8 to 5 vote and called partisan by the mainline Democrats.[6] Some objected that the plan would violated the Voting Rights Act by splitting the Hispanic community into 4 pieces.
  • The University of Buffalo Law School and the ACLU drew in a non-partisan map in May 2011 to try to offer an alternative to the partisan battle.[7]
  • The Legislature introduced two plans in May 2011, neither of which was the plan drawn by the Commission. The plan that passed the Erie County Legislature on June 16th, 2011 was drawn by Democrats and passed by the slimmest of margins, 8-7.[8]
  • The plan was vetoed by County Executive Chris Collins (R), who called the plan “unbelievably bad for the taxpayers of Erie County” and said it “hurts the County’s rural communities, draws districts that make no geographic sense, and dilutes minority representation”[9]
  • The veto could only be overruled by a two third majority, so this created an impasse that led to the Courts appointed a special master to draw the map in August 2011 (http://download.gannett.edgesuite.net/wgrz/news/fileddecision.pdf)
    • During this acrimonious process, County Executive Chris Collins (R) proposed the creation of a new independent process for 2021 that would “serve to avoid any and all potential future conflicts.” It would create a commission with 7 citizen members selected one each by University of Buffalo Law School, the Buffalo Urban League, the Erie County Farm Bureau, the Association of Erie County Governments, the League of Women Voters, the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, and the Buffalo AFL-CIO Central Labor Council. The commission would have to consider equal representation, communities of interest, urban and rural communities, and compact and efficient districts. Members of the commission would not be allowed to have held office, been the spouse of an officeholder, or served in any capacity for a party within the last three years. “This is a real attempt at taking politics out of the process completely and making it the fairest plan possible for everyone who will benefit – the taxpayers of Erie County,” Collins said.

–          Lessons Learned from Erie County:

  • “Advisory” Commissions are ineffective
    • Erie draws parallels to Nassau County in this regard – in both cases the County Legislature was able to effectively ignore the work of the Advisory Commission largely without consequence.
  • “Citizen” members directly appointed by Legislators will likely simply serve as designees of those who appointed them and will not have the opportunity to act independently
  • Clear, defined criteria needed in the charter
    • The Advisory Committee was not provided any criteria by the charter to guide the drafting of their plan, allowing political motives free reign over the mapmaking.


Tompkins County[10]

–          Redistricting Process:

  • The Tompkins County Charter requires the Legislature to appoint a committee on reapportionment, but does not specify the structure of the committee. Each redistricting cycle, the Legislature “shall give to said committee the guidelines under which the committee is to operate.”
  • Timeline: No set timeline in the charter, Legislature is given freedom to devise the timeline to give to the Commission each redistricting cycle
  • Criteria: “Minimization of the population variance among districts; compactness of districts; practicable consistency with existing municipal boundaries and neighborhoods within Tompkins County; and balance and reasonableness of representation for the diversity of citizens residing in all parts of the county”
  • Transparency/Public Input: No specific process of public hearings or requirements for transparency in redistricting are outlined in the charter.

–          2011 Experience:

  • In 2011, the Tompkins County Legislature decided to instruct the legislature to establish a 9 member independent commission by a vote of 14-1.
    • 9 members appointed by the Legislature, with the Chair also appointed by the Legislature. “No current elected municipal officials, or officers of any political party or committee” were allowed on the commission[11]
  • 2011 Timeline: Applications for the commission were solicited until April 29, 2011.[12] The commission  was appointed on June 7, 2011[13]. The commission released an interim report on November 11, 2011, and delivered its Final Report to the Legislature on February 23, 2012 after holding two public hearings. The plan was revised and resubmitted to the Legislature on April 23, 2012. The Legislature voted to accept the recommendations 10-3 on June 25, 2012.[14] A final public hearing was held on August 29th 2012 and the final vote was held on September 5th 2012 with a 10-5 vote in favor of the new plan.[15]
  • The major point of contention was whether or not to reduce the Legislature from 15 members to 14, which ultimately was recommended by the Independent Commission and adopted by the Legislature.
  • All materials were made publically available at http://tompkinscountyny.gov/redistricting/ and the Commission released several very detailed reports detailing their process and decision-making.
  • Staff was provided by both the Legislature and the County Department of Information Technology.
  • The Commission’s final report recommended that the Legislature continue to use independent commission but should add more detail setting forth “the principal constitutional, statutory, and policy considerations for the commission’s deliberations, along with a deadline for the submission of the commission’s report.” The Commission also recommended that more “professional, administrative and budgetary support” is needed. But ultimately, the Commission noted that “We believe this record sets a standard that other local governments and state legislatures should emulate.”

–          Lessons Learned from Tompkins County:

  • It is possible for a Legislature to decide to appoint and follow the recommendations of a non-binding independent commission, but this is probably only possible in a County like Tompkins where one party (in this case the Democrats) has a firm lock on power and is not threatened by the other party.
  • Independent Commissions should be given as detailed and clear instructions, criteria, and procedure as possible – Tompkins’ County Commissioners made this recommendation in their final report on the process.
  • Charter should provide for budgetary and professional support for independent commission – Tompkins’ County Commissioners made this recommendation in their final report on the process.


Suffolk County[16]

–          Redistricting Process: In 2007, Suffolk County established a new independent redistricting process. The Suffolk County Legislature must appoint an 8-member Reapportionment Commission

  • Appointment Process: Each major party picks two members (the retired judges, see below), but the other four members “shall not be affiliated with any one political party.”
    • The majority and minority leaders of the Legislature each choose 2 retired judges
    • 2 members recommended by “a publically recognized organization committed to the principles of voters’ rights and/or the advancement of public policy, are appointed, 1 each by the majority and minority leaders.
    • 2 members representing “publicly recognized minority [i.e. civil rights] organization” are appointed, 1 each by the majority and minority leaders. The “minority organizations” here must have existed for at least two years and “established for the purposes of advocating on behalf of any race, creed, color, sex, gender, or national origin that did not constitute 50% or more of the Suffolk County population as measured by the immediately preceding census.” The minority organizations may not be political committees.
    • Vacancies are filled in the original manner above
      • All members must be registered to vote in Suffolk and have not changed their party affiliation  in the immediately preceding two years.
      • All members must sign affidavit agreeing not to seek office in Suffolk County above the office of committee person for the next 5 years.
      • Members cannot have held and politic party position above the office of committee person during the previous 5 years
      • Members cannot have been paid political consultants during the previous 10 years
      • Members  cannot be immediate family of any politician in Suffolk avoe the office of committee person
    • The Commission holds its first meeting within 30 days of the appointments and the Chairpersons are selected at this meeting – one by the majority leader and one by the minority leader.
    • 5 members is a quorum, plan must be approved by 6 votes, commission “shall hold regular meetings, keep a record of all its proceedings. “Special meetings” can be called by a Chairperson or by a 5 vote majority, four-day written notice of any “special meetings” must be circulated.
    • County Legislature provides “technical and bipartisan staff”
  • Timeline:
    • The Reapportionment Commission must be appointed no later than 90 days after the publication of the Census (so around April 1, 2011/2021)
    • Reapportionment Committee shall propose its plan, which must be approved by 6 of the 8 members, by February 1 of the year following Census publication (2012, 2022, etc)
    • Legislature shall vote to approve/disapprove the Commission’s proposal within 90 days, or the Legislature can choose to ignore the Commission’s proposal and disapprove it without a vote.
    • If the Legislature disapproves, the Commission has 45 days to file a revised proposal.
    • Legislature then has another 90 days to vote to approve/disapprove, or disapprove by ignoring it.
    • The Commission expires 30 days after a plan is adopted by the County Legislature, or immediately on Feb 1st 2012/2022 if it fails to propose a plan.
    • If the Commission fails to propose a plan by February 1st 2012/2022, the County Legislature takes over and has until June 1st, or 120 days after the State adopts its state plan, to adopt a plan.
    • If the Legislature fails, the County Attorney will apply to the courts for a Special Master
  • Criteria: “substantially equal weight for all the voters in the allocation of representation in the Suffolk County Legislative Body”, specifically “no legislative district shall deviate more than 3% except in those instances where a deviation of greater than 3% is required to meet the standards of the Voting Rights”. No town “except a town having more than 110% of a full ratio for each representative” may be divided, “there shall be substantially fair and effective representation for the people of Suffolk County as organized in political parties,” “convenient and contiguous territory in as compact a form as practicable.”
  • Transparency/Public Input: Four public hearings required, 2 before the plan is drawn, and 2 after the plan. (for each pair of meetings, the locations must specifically be in Hauppauge and Riverhead)

–         2011 Experience:

  • The Suffolk County independent redistricting commission structure was enacted into law in 2007. County Executive Steve Levy led the effort and it passed the Legislature 11-0, with seven abstentions. At the time, the Suffolk law was widely praised, including in a New York Times editorial that called it “an example that Albany should follow”.[17]
  • But almost from the beginning, the actual process turned out to be a mess. The Commission was not appointed until late July 2011.[18] The Republican Minority Leader did not fully follow the appointment procedures, it was difficult to find qualified retired judges, and party leaders were apparently very involved in the selection process[19]
  • The Commission failed to meet its February 1st 2012 deadline to submit a plan to the Legislature. Those involved say the parties intentionally slowed up the process.
  • Once the Commission missed its deadline, the Democratic Majority decided to take over the process rather than extend the Commission[20]. The Republicans proposed extending the Commission. The vote by Democrats to dismiss the commission and take over the process was not unanimous, Legislator Montano (D) sided with Republicans. Newsday editorial board derided the Democrats as opportunistic and self-serving.
  • Final plan was partisan and non-transparent, drawn by the Democratic Majority[21]

–          Lessons Learned from Suffolk County:

  • Retired judges are not ideal members of independent commissions
  • The model of assigning commissioners by relationships to organizations (e.g. a good government organization or a minority organization) may not be practicable
  • Even numbered commission is a recipe for gridlock
  • If the commission is given an “expiration date” upon which the Legislature takes over, the Legislature is incentivized to stall and wait for the Commission to expire.
  • Majority will nearly always gerrymander if given the opportunity


Ulster County[22]

The Ulster County independent redistricting process was originally created in 2006 when Ulster County decided to create a County Charter. It was refined in 2012 by a charter review commission and approved by referendum to the form outlined below:

–          Redistricting Process:  7 member independent commission composed of Ulster County residents eligible to vote, who cannot be “public officers, employees of New York State, Ulster County or any town, city or village in that County, or members or officers of any political committee.” Commissioners shall “represent various geographic areas of the County”

  • Two members are appointed each by the Legislature Majority and Minority leaders, these four members select the other 3 members from the rest of the pool (unless they cannot agree after numerous tries, whereupon the 3 additional members are selected by lottery – see below).
  • The Chair of the commission is elected by majority vote of the commissioners at their first meeting. Vacancies are filled in the same manner as the original appointments, within 15 days.
  • Timeline:
    • Commission is formed “as soon as practicable after the availability of census data County Exec begins soliciting interest in serving on the Commission “through such means as direct mail and e-mail, contact with civic groups, public service announcements on radio and television and in daily and weekly newspapers, paid advertisement and announcement on the County website” no later than June 1 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
    • The County Executive must select the pool of eligible members and submit it to the Legislature no later than September 1 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
    • The four initial appointments by the Majority and Minority leader must be made no later than October 1 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
    • The four appointed members select the additional three members by October 15 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
      • If the four appointed members fail to select the additional three by this date, they are removed from the Commission and the Majority and Minority Leaders must re-select new one by November 1 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
      • The new four appointment members then select the additional three members by November 15 of the year ending in 0 (2010/2020).
        • If the four appointed members continue to fail to select the additional three, this process repeats one more time in December
        • If it fails again in December, then by January 1st of the year ending in “1” the three additional members are selected by lottery from the remaining members of the pool that the four appointed commissioners agree by majority vote meet the criteria set forth in Section 10-a (the criteria being Ulster Residents and not politicians, etc.) . The County Clerk draws the names. The four appointed members review to make sure the new members meet the criteria, if any are rejected, they are redrawn.
    • The Commission meets no later than 15 days after fully appointed.
    • Commission holds one or more hearings by May 20th of the year ending in “1”
      • Commission must make its draft plan available to the public for inspection not less than 10 days before the hearing.
    • Commission votes by majority to submit a final plan to the Clerk of the Legislature by June 1st of the year ending in “1”
      • The Legislature can give additional 15 day extensions if the commission requests.
    • At this point, there is language requiring that the plan be submitted to the Ulster County voters for approval by referendum on Election Day of the year ending in “1”. But Ulster needs Albany to approve a certain home rule law for them in order for this to happen. The language reads that if the State Government fails to pass the law granting Ulster the ability to hold this referendum, the plan will go into effect for elections beginning with the year ending in “3.”If Albany allows the referendum and the plan is approved by referendum, it also goes into law for the election ending in the year “3”
      • If Albany allows the referendum  and the plan is rejected, the independent commission process restarts beginning with the pool of candidates established by December 15th, with accelerated deadlines, producing a plan by May 1st of the year ending in “2.” If this second independent plan is again defeated by a referendum, then it goes to a Special Master in the courts.
      • Commission is dissolved “on the day following the general election in which it submits its plan to the Clerk of the County Legislature”
      • If Albany does not allow the referendum – there is a provision requiring that the Charter Review Commission reconvene in 2017 to work out another solution.
  • Criteria: “Meet established standards in state and federal law for equal and fair representation of all people in Ulster County, keeping districts compact and contiguous while taking also into account existing town, city, village and election district boundaries, defining geographic features, and equal population within applicable law, but giving no consideration to providing advantage to one or another political party”
  • Transparency/Public Input: As noted above, there is a specific requirements for “one or more public hearings”, and the charter requires that the Commission must make its draft plan available to the public for inspection not less than 10 days before the hearing.

–          2011 Experiences

  • The Ulster County Charter was created in 2006 and provisions of the new county charter called for switching from 33 members in 12 districts to 23 members in 23 districts[23]
  • The original process created in 2006 and was closely similar to the above except that it allowed the Legislature and County Executive to vote on the plan as other counties do.
    • The 2012 Ulster County Charter Review Commission sought to make the process truly independent and remove the politicians altogether. The politicians of course, objected. A compromise was reached establishing the provisions for the voters to approve the plan by referendum.  The 2012 reform also established a much longer timeframe, with the process occurring in the future 2020-2021, on the ballot for referendum approval in 2021 and going into effect for the 2023 election.
  • The 2011 process was a very quick, occurring entirely from January to May 2011 and requiring very intensive work from the commissioners.
  • Nevertheless, the Commission produced a plan that was approved by the old 33 member Legislature 29-2 [24],  signed by the County Exec, and widely praised as fair by reformers including the League of Women Voters[25]

–          Lessons Learned from Ulster County:

  • Odd number of commissioners prevents the possibility of a deadlocked commission
  • The method of four appointed members, 2 by each party, choosing an additional three members appears to be an effective way of achieving unbiased, non-partisan commissioners, especially compared to other methods like Suffolk.
  • The level of clarity and detail in the Ulster County process is above and beyond all other New York State processes and likely contributed to its success
  • Allowing the Commission full control over its budget and staff may also be crucial in maintaining independence.
  • For the next cycle, the 2012 revisions to the Ulster County process completely removes the role Legislature and Executive in favor of a popular referendum, but it is yet unclear if Albany will allow this to occur or if it is an effective method of popular oversight.
Ulster County's current district plan, developed by an independent redistricting commission, is widely regarded as fair

Ulster County’s current district plan, developed by an independent redistricting commission, is widely regarded as fair


[1] Westchester County Charter available at http://ecode360.com/7144704, all description of the process derives directly from the County charter

[10] Tompkins  County Charter available at http://ecode360.com/26994990

[16] Suffolk County Charter available at http://ecode360.com/14938626

[22] Ulster County Charter available at http://ecode360.com/9670117

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