Buffalo Common Council struggles with citizen input on redistricting; the politics of the new 23rd congressional district

A great deal of wasted time and energy was exercised in New York this year in the creation of new legislative districts following the federal census.  A constitutionally appointed Independent Redistricting Commission spent time and money drawing Democratic and Republican versions of maps for congressional and state legislative districts that were never used.  The doomed-to-fail effort led the State Legislature to draw their own lines, only to have them struck down by state courts.  The court that originally heard the case appointed a “Special Master” who spent more time and money drawing up congressional and state Senate districts.  The same scenario will likely play out again in time for new Assembly districts in 2024.  The special master’s congressional and Senate lines are now the subject of a convoluted set of primaries to be held on August 23rd throughout the state.

And now there is the case of the redistricting of Common Council districts in the City of Buffalo.  The Council has the responsibility to approve new districts to be used over the next ten years.  They took the easy way out, just tweaking current districts to balance out the populations of the districts.  The Council’s version of the new map was essentially the same as the 2012 work.  The old map left a hodgepodge of lines that paid little attention to the distinct neighborhoods that give the city its character.

A genuine citizen-based rebellion against the Council’s line rose from the ground up.  Investigative Post’s Geoff Kelly (Council lost, activists take redistricting rudder – Investigative Post) recently laid out the citizen action – an impressive exercise in small “d” democracy.

Led by the Our City Action Buffalo organization, rank-and-file citizenry brought a big crowd to a Council hearing on their redistricting plans.  The told members of the Council that they wanted the 2022 version of the districts to respect the city’s identifiable neighborhoods more closely.  They even presented their own version of a new city map that kept district populations relatively comparable but also respectful of the neighborhoods.  The Fillmore District, for example, would no longer twist and turn from near the city’s eastern border over to and including Allentown.

As a press conference called by Our City Action proceeded in front of City Hall on July 1, the Council abruptly canceled a meeting they had scheduled for that day to move forward with their plan. They then on Friday, July 8th filed a revised map and scheduled another approval meeting for July 12th for a plan that doesn’t look a whole lot different from their first one. Our City Action responded with another press conference on Sunday. Then late on July 11th the Council again postponed action.

The Council appeared prepared to dismiss citizen participation and choose their own voters for the next ten years. They may be calculating that that will not hurt them politically. Perhaps they are remembering how many potential primaries against them in 2019 went nowhere. Or is an engaged citizenry suddenly making them nervous?

The Council is required to complete its redistricting by the end of July, and then Mayor Byron Brown is required to hold a public hearing of his own before acting on the new lines.  Legal action may follow the Council’s vote and the mayor’s approval. 

Democracy in this country is being challenged on many fronts.  It would be encouraging to see this small but meaningful victory come to fruition, but don’t hold your breath.

A quick look at political and other statistics for the new 23rd congressional district

Party registration leans Republican

In Erie County, which comprises more than 40 percent of the entire district, we do not yet have exact party registration numbers for the new congressional districts (the Town of West Seneca is only partly in the new district, but we can make a reasonable estimate of that town’s numbers); for the rest of the county that it is in the 23rd we have official registration numbers from February 2022.  The same is true for the other six counties in the congressional district.  Here is the breakdown (West Seneca numbers estimated):

  • Democrat  157,926
  • Republican  193,714
  • Minor parties and non-affiliated  184,945
  • Total registration  536,585

Turnout in the district during the recent Republican gubernatorial primary appears to have run slightly ahead of the state as a whole

Published vote totals by municipality are not yet available in Erie County, which prevents calculations in the 23rd district portion of the County, but we are able to assess Republican turnout numbers in the other six counties in the southern tier for the recent party primaries for governor compared with statewide turnout; the calculation is based on nearly complete reporting by the state Board of Elections.  These are the numbers:

  • Republican turnout, statewide:  17 percent
  • Republican turnout in the six southern tier counties:  19 percent
  • Republican turnout in the entire Erie County, which includes both the new 23rd and 26th districts:  17 percent

For comparison

  • Democratic turnout, statewide:  15 percent
  • Democratic turnout in the six southern tier counties:  13 percent
  • Democratic turnout in the entire Erie County, which includes both the new 23rd and 26th districts:  18 percent

Trump carried the district in 2020 by 18 percent, 59 to 41 percent

District Voting-Age Demographics, per the Special Master Report

  • White  89.7 percent
  • Hispanic  3.1 percent
  • Black  2.3 percent
  • Asian  1.1 percent
  • American Indian  0.8 percent
  • Other/multi-race  3 percent

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