The contentious Monroe County Legislature redistricting process saw more action last week. County Executive Adam Bello and other Democrats voiced their opinions, based on new analysis by election experts, and Crescent Map supporters rallied outside the county legislative building in opposition.
Supporters of the Crescent Map claim it will create five majority Black districts to protect voting rights of Black residents. Bello says a weeks-long expert analysis shows it will instead pack Black votes together, diluting their influence. A sixth Black district is needed.
“The law for redistricting is complicated and nuanced, leaving room for misinformation, disinformation and political posturing to shape the discourse. We have seen certain members of the Legislature engage in the type of name-calling and gamesmanship surrounding the process which has only served to confuse our community,” Bello said, claiming that Republican rejection of his proposal for an independent redistricting commission has led them to this point.
“The current map under consideration isn’t good for our community in general, and it certainly isn’t good for the community those promoting this map purport to support,” he continued. “The only people benefitting from this map are those legislators currently supporting it. This is a process that should have been independent, but was not. Instead, the process was guided by self-interest and aimed at confusing the public in order to pursue political goals.”
Bello’s news conference was the first significant response on redistricting from the county executive since the Crescent Map was introduced last month. Fellow Democratic Legislator Rachel Barnhart, Legislature President Sabrina LaMar and members of the Republican party support the current map, which Bello referred to as “the Barnhart-GOP map.”
The media briefing included an analysis of the Crescent Map plan by Lisa Handley, president of Frontier International Consulting, a firm that specializes in redistricting, and Jeffrey Wice, an attorney focused on redistricting, voting rights and census law. The two experts used geographical information from the county executive’s office for a data-intensive analysis.
Handley’s statistical analysis found that Districts 22, 25, 27, 28 and 29 were effective Black districts, or “crossover districts,” meaning that among Black voters, their candidates of choice have now and historically been able to be elected.
“Increasing the Black voting-age population to make these crossover districts majority Black is unconstitutional,” said Handley, referencing U.S. Supreme Court case Cooper v. Harris, where redistricting plans in North Carolina were determined to pack Black voters. “And it would certainly dilute the strength of Black voters by unnecessarily packing them into few districts and lessening their ability to have an impact on surrounding districts.”
In addition, Wice said the threshold for an effective Black voting district included more than reaching 50 percent of the voting-age population in the area, a measurement Crescent Map supporters often use while championing their plan.
“It is not a magic number and the Voting Rights Act does not require that districts be created at 50 percent or greater,” Wice said. “(In Monroe County), we’re faced with a situation where there are already effective districts at electing minority-preferred candidates with less than 50 percent minority voting-age population and that by simply upping the number to 50 percent plus, you’re weakening a district by doing so and running the risk of violating the U.S. Constitution 14th Amendment.”
Based on demographic data, William Burgess, legislator in the 29th District, believes neighborhoods should stay intact and that a sixth effective district is the way to move forward.
“At a time when we are faced with much adversity, we should be coming together to support one another. Instead, there are false narratives to divide us,” Burgess said, referencing the voting history of legislative districts 25, 27 and 29, which have elected Black or Latino representatives for 55, 30, and 20 years, respectively. “Let’s move forward, not backward, for a fully informed and brighter community.”
Bello’s office now is formulating its own map based on Wice and Handley’s input to create six effective Black districts in the Rochester metro area, likely targeting districts 21, 22, 25, 27, 28, 29.
Supporters of the Crescent Map plan who showed up to a rally outside the county building are not satisfied with Bello’s plans. They urged the county executive to approve the current proposal and accused the county Democratic Party of packing Black voters.
“They are now claiming they will create six effectively majority Black districts. They won’t, because they can’t. There’s no such thing as effectively Black districts under the Voting Rights Act,” said LaMar, who claims the act only recognizes Black districts with 50.1 percent Black population, countering Handley and Wice’s statements. “They want to create districts where Black voters could be outvoted by a combination of white and Latino voters. In other words, white voters would control the outcome of so-called Black districts.”
She views it as an opportunity to change history.
“For far too long, Black voters in the city of Rochester have been victims of racial gerrymandering by the Democrats in the Monroe County Legislature. This year we have an opportunity to change that, we also have an obligation to change that,” said LaMar, who accused white Democratic legislators of seeking to maintain control and push preselected candidates on Black voters. “Shame on them for attempting to make this process about themselves and not about the people.”
The rally included members of the ROC Acts, the Poor People’s Campaign, Barnhart, Brighton Town Board member Robin Wilt, Rev. Myra Brown of the Spiritus Christi Church, and Nate McMurray, former candidate for New York’s 27th Congressional District and Buffalo-based lawyer who most recently represented LaKaya Sinclair in her case against former county legislator Ernest Flagler-Mitchell last year.
“It’s a tragedy where, in a county led by Democrats, we are also disrespecting the Voting Rights Act and we’re bringing in high-powered lobbyists and attorneys to twist and turn the meaning of the law and the spirit of the law to underrepresented Black voters,” McMurray said.
He went on to call Bello’s attitude “condescending and patronizing” and repeated LaMar’s claims that there is no such thing as effectively Black districts under the law.
While Bello’s six-district minority map, by his own admission, will not be completed for some weeks, the Crescent map will come up for a vote soon. With the rhetoric involved so far, it seems likely to be vetoed by Bello.