Southern Brooklyn

Fidler: Reform Voting Rights Act To Better Reflect Realities Of Brooklyn Communities (Op-Ed)

The current and proposed lines for the 48th District of the City Council. The process has sparked controversy, as Russian-Americans gain influence under the new lines, and Orthodox Jews appear to lose influence.

Our open thread yesterday kicked off with a look at the redistricting process, which seems to be pitting local Russian-Americans against local Orthodox Jews for influence in the 48th Councilmanic District, currently represented by Michael Nelson. We very briefly reflected, with a dose of sarcasm, about the role race, ethnicity and religion plays in the process. That post elicited the following e-mail from Councilman Lew Fidler, who represents the neighboring 46th District:

Photo by Erica Sherman

Race and ethnicity, though not religion, are an integral part of redistricting, like it or not. In fact, federal law makes it so.

Kings County is a jurisdiction covered by the Federal Voting Rights Act. Redistricters are compelled to ensure that protected classes of minority voters – such classes are specified in the statute – do not lose maximal representation when district lines are drawn. (We are a Voting Rights County based upon discriminatory voting patterns from long, long ago.)

Southern Brooklyn has been ripped apart in both council redistricting (by the commission) and congressional redistricting (by the federal court) in large part due to the Voting Rights Act as applied to the unique demographics of Brooklyn.

There is no venal intent here… let me explain.

Central Brooklyn, which is the hub of minority (“Voting Rights”) districts, has shrunk in relative population. In order to maintain these districts as minority districts under the law, the non-minority population must be manipulated and integrated into minority districts; not so much as to shift the numbers to make the district non-minority, but enough to get the district up to a full population. Naturally, it is those neighborhoods with non-minority populations that are adjacent to the minority districts that get dragged into them.

For example, that is why the 45th District currently represented by Jumaane Williams, short on minority population, reached south into the non-minority neighborhoods of Flatbush/Midwood for its additional population. In fact, this does do violence to the neighborhood integrity of that community, and for these voters, it is grossly unfair.

But, to be clear, it is not because the redistricting commission had a conscious plan to “screw” Flatbush or any particular religious community. They are straining to find a way to comply with the Voting Rights Act.

A Federal Court Master drew the congressional lines. The same mechanics resulted in Flatbush and Sheepshead Bay being drawn as vestigial parts into the district “represented” by Congresswoman Yvette Clarke.

Similarly with those south of us and in Howard Beach, who were drawn into Congressman Hakeem Jeffries’ district.

My view is that the Voting Rights Act needs to be reformed to reflect modern realities while maintaining its protections against discriminatory practices. There needs to be greater flexibility when a constituency recedes as part of the relative population of a county. For the first time that I am aware of since Kings County became a Voting Rights county, some communities (think Fort Greene) are going from being minority communities to non-minority communities. The law needs to be able to reflect those challenges.

The local argument that Ned has reported on is in fact caused by the application of the Voting Rights Act. Therefore, ethnicity will inevitably and inextricably be a part of the conversation for better or for worse.

– Lew from Brooklyn

P.S. – Of course, Southern Brooklyn was also brutalized by the State Senate lines. That victimization had nothing whatsoever to do with the Voting Rights Act. That was pure political partisan greed on the part of the State Senate Republicans, who carved up our neighborhoods in the most venal redistricting plan most of us have ever seen since the days of Elbridge Gerry.