What is a ‘community of interest’?
Starting today, the New York World Daily Q will occasionally bring in experts to answer a timely question about a big story in New York news. For the first installment, we’ve invited Susan Lerner, executive director of the good-government organization Common Cause New York. She addresses a question that has come up repeatedly in reporting our ongoing series on redistricting: What do lawmakers and advocates mean when they say they want to keep a “community of interest” together within a district? – Sasha Chavkin
Throughout New York’s redistricting process, the term “community of interest” has often been thrown around to describe, support, or criticize proposed districts. Organizations and individuals, from Common Cause New York to the NAACP to LATFOR’s Co-Chair Senator Michael Nozzolio (R), have professed support for keeping “communities of interest” together in the same district. It is maybe the one redistricting principle that’s not a binding federal or state law that all actors involved in the process publicly support.
The problem is that without further discussion and definition, “communities of interest” can be used as a catch-all term to justify almost anything. After releasing draft lines with a new 63rd district to the public, Senate Republicans eagerly defended the new district – which stretches from Montgomery County in the Mohawk Valley through Schenectady and Albany County all the way into Ulster County – as a “community of interest.” At the Albany LATFOR hearing, the primary reason offered was that both the Montgomery County and Ulster County portions of the district were on riverfronts. Never mind that it’s not the same river and that the district stretches through five counties!
Although vulnerable to this kind of manipulation, “communities of interest,” if correctly defined and applied, is actually a powerful good-government concept that could dramatically improve public engagement and representation in the legislature. We at Common Cause NY define a community of interest as “a local population with shared socio-economic characteristics and political institutions that would benefit from unified representation by a single legislator.”
The shared characteristics may include class, education, ethnicity, language, religion, occupations/industry, transportation and commuting patterns, housing patterns, shopping patterns, population age, family structures, and geography. “Shared political institutions” is equally important – this means that local government units, including counties, towns, cities, villages and school districts, should be kept together whenever possible.
Within New York City, respecting communities of interest often translates into respect for neighborhood boundaries, keeping distinct local communities together in one district so they can effectively organize and engage in civic life. In upstate New York, it often translates into orienting districts around distinct regions like the North Country, Rochester Metropolitan Area, or Southern Tier.
Keeping local governmental units together is pretty straightforward. And now with advanced mapping software like ArcGIS, district maps can be layered with socio-economic data like median income, homeownership, public transit use, educational attainment, and occupation in order to identify concentrations of residents with common characteristics and interests.
A community with unified and cohesive political leadership will have stronger influence in the legislature. On the other hand, if a community with shared interests is divided by political district lines, the representation of those interests in the Capitol will also be divided and weak.
When we drew the Common Cause Reform Plan, this definition of “communities of interest” was at the top of our list of criteria. Unlike LATFOR, we did not look at any political data like voter enrollment or election outcomes and did not consider the residence of incumbents.
The contrast between the two plans is quite striking, because the “community of interest” that LATFOR was really looking out for in its plans is the community of incumbent legislators.