CENTRAL ISLIP, N.Y. (CN) – Minority voters who filed a class action lawsuit against the Nassau County Legislature and Board of Elections to stop a redistricting plan they say will disenfranchise 40 percent of voters in advance of this November’s elections will get their day in court later this month.
According to the plaintiffs the redistricting is merely a blatant attempt by county Republicans to boost their control of the county legislature.
On July 5, local Democratic leaders won the right to take similar claims to state court, where the legislators plan to argue that the redistricting violates the Nassau County charter.
The federal class action, on the other hand, attacks the redistricting plan on the grounds of alleged violations to the 14th Amendment of the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which safeguard the rights of minority voters.
The four minority voters serving as lead plaintiffs note the Voting Rights Act is responsible for the existence of the Nassau Legislature.
In 1993, different minority voters sued the now-defunct Board of Supervisors, which a federal judge disbanded for violating the Constitution’s principle of “one-person, one vote rule.”
A year later, the newly-formed Nassau County Legislature held its first elections in 19 districts, and two of the winners would become the county’s first African-American representatives in its nearly century-long history.
In 2009, Newsday reported that former Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi said in a debate that Nassau is still one of the most segregated places in America.
Republican Presiding Officer Peter Schmitt, who introduced the maps in April, now claims to be holding the mantle of the Voting Acts Right, while the Democratic leaders and many minority voters suing him in twin cases believe he is making a mockery of it.
Taking cues the legal opinions of Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli, a former counsel for the New York State Senate Republican Campaign Committee, Schmitt said the radical reshuffling was necessary because the 2010 Census revealed that the old maps unconstitutionally diluted minority votes.
A lawyer for the minority voters in the class action called that explanation “hogwash.”
“This has nothing to do with the rights of minorities,” lead attorney Frederick Brewington told Courthouse News. “They didn’t do this to help. They did it to hurt, and they know it.”
In a prior phone interview with Courthouse News, Ciampoli said that the new maps could avoid lawsuits alleging violations to the Voting Rights Act.
Instead, the redistricting plan prompted the class action against the county’s Legislature and Board of Directors, filed on June 6.
Critics say the new maps force two Democrats to run against each other and isolate like-minded voters so dramatically that certain districts are only connected by water. The maps also change the district of local Democrat Diane Yatauro, the Minority Leader of the Legislature, after she announced she would not be seeking another term, but before her replacement had been named. The timing ensured that the plan would sidestep a local law prohibiting redistricting incumbents.
Nassau Democrats call the redistricting “mandering of the worst ilk,” designed by Republicans to maintain or increase their 11-to-8 majority status in the next election.
“They moved the lines strategically to capitalize on this situation so that they could gain three more seats,” Brewington said.
In May, the Republican-majority legislature approved the redistricting in a vote split roughly on party lines.
Both lawsuits preceded the vote, and either one of them can prevent the redistricting from taking effect before the November elections.
But Brewington cautioned that victory in either case might not mean that Democrats are in the clear.
“No one can imagine what the possibilities are because the last chapter hasn’t been written,” Brewington said.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Arlene Lindsay ordered the parties to wrap up discovery by Wednesday.
Trial is set for July 26.