County officials are barred from holding elections until a new redistricting plan is drafted after a federal judge ruled the recent plan dilutes the power of black voters.
Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence Kahn issued an 81-page decision Tuesday, March 24, ruling Albany County violated the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and must submit a remedial redistricting plan by April 14. Kahn sided with plaintiffs arguing a fifth county legislative district should have been created with a majority of minority voters, as opposed to only four such districts.
This is not the first time county lawmakers have had to redraw district lines. The latest decision marks the third consecutive redistricting plan that has had to be redrawn following legal challenges over diluting minority voting power.
County Executive Dan McCoy, then chairman of the County Legislature, selected members of the recent Redistricting Commission. Shawn Morse, now chairman of the legislature, also served as chairman of the commission.
McCoy’s Office in a prepared statement said, “It has always been the county’s intent to create (majority-minority districts) where voting has not been diluted and to protect the voting rights of all minorities.”
Replying to questions from The Spotlight Tuesday, March 23, a spokeswoman for McCoy said there would be no comments outside of its issued statement. McCoy reportedly told other media outlets the county should not appeal the decision, which other county officials have echoed.
John Merrill, a longtime county employee, had been hired to help the commission draw new district lines. When drawing the lines, Merrill only used “single-race black” to establish majority-minority districts (MMD).
When residents initially questioned how the commission defined minority, they were told it was mixed-race black and Hispanic. However, the commission eventually said it had used the more restrictive single-race black population figures.
According to the decision during a May 2011 caucus meeting, Merrill said data showed a fifth MMD was possible, “but that he was told to create only four MMDs.”
The court found protecting incumbents was an “important priority” for the commission. However, “most commission members were generally uninvolved” in redrawing districts. The commission also never met to discuss how many MMDs to create, or how minority was defined.
A spokeswoman for McCoy said the 2003 litigation asked county officials to create MMDs containing “more than a bare majority of minority voters,” which the recent plan sought to implement.
“In the 2011 redistricting process, the county attempted to honor this request and to protect the ability of minority voters to elect candidates of their choice by creating voting districts that were at least 55 percent African-American voters,” said McCoy’s Office in a statement.
This led to the four MMD approach, which had black voting-age populations of 59.2 percent in District 1, 55.4 percent in District 2, 61.75 percent in District 3, and 55.1 percent in District 4.
Advocates for a fifth MMD distributed an alternative, known as the Arbor Hill Environmental Justice Plan, which had black voting-age populations of 52.2 percent in District 1, 52.7 percent in District 2, 52.7 percent in District 3, 50.4 percent in District 4, and 51.6 percent in District 5.
The commission, thus the legislature, did not consider the alternative plan before Michael Breslin, then county executive, signed the new district lines into law.
Kahn said “laudable progress to address racial disparities in the county has been made,” but the recent plan failed to represent black residents. He cited several examples of addressing racial disparities, such as moratorium on construction of further oil facilities in the South End of Albany.
McCoy’s Office, pointing to such statements, said the court found “significant achievements” were made “towards racial equality and sensitivity to minority issues.”
A day after the decision, Legislature Majority Leader Frank Commisso announced the formation of a Redistricting Committee, which includes five Democrats and two Republicans nominees.
Democratic legislators Commisso appointed legislators Sean Ward, Justin Corcoran, William Clay, Timothy Nichols and Norma Chapman to serve on the committee. Minority Leader Lee Carman selected Rachel Bledi, Republican commissioner of the county Board of Elections, and legislator Christine Benedict.
Commisso, D-Albany, is confidant committee members will be able to meet the tight deadline, which the court appears to have imposed to not disrupt ballot petitioning in June for elections this year.
“The Voting Rights Act was enacted to help effectuate the Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantee that no citizen’s right to vote shall be ‘denied or abridged…on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude,’ and the members of this committee will do everything they can to ensure that.”
Carman, R-Guilderland, remains “skeptical” the new commission, with a majority of Democrats, would be able to draft “fair and equitable” district lines.
“Past attempts to manipulate legislative districts to benefit the existing regime of county Democrats has failed miserably, both for the people and in the courts,” Carman said in a statement. “The only true solution is supporting a plan proposed by the Albany County Charter Review Commission to establish a non-partisan, independent and inclusive reapportionment commission to permanently reform this process.”
The court also awarded attorney’s fees to the plaintiffs, with the amount to be determined in a separate motion, which have been estimated to fall around $1 million.
The case was heard during an 11-day bench trial between Nov. 6, 2014, and Jan. 13.