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Politics and Government

Onondaga County redistricting halted as McMahon vetoes proposed map

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WRVO News (file photo)
A recent meeting of the Onondaga County Reapportionment Commission. County Executive Ryan McMahon vetoed the map drawn by the Republican members of the commission

When Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon vetoed the county’s controversial legislature-approved redistricting map, he cited one formal reason for his decision.

He said it violates the new state law that requires no more than a 5% population deviation from the largest district to the smallest.

The largest population deviation was between Districts 15 and 12. District 15 was the largest with 29,137 people and District 12 was the smallest with 26,734. That deviation is about 8.6% of the mean district population of 28,030.

McMahon said violating this is a recipe for a lawsuit.

“There's no point in putting out stuff that–there's an inflated legal risk,” said McMahon. “When you can go back, tweak some things, and then have a sounder product.”

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Onondaga County Reapportionment Commission
Republican-drawn redistricting map which was recently passed by the Onondaga County legislature and vetoed by County Executive Ryan McMahon.

Another big point of concern for McMahon is the stark decrease in the 16th district’s Black population the new map would cause. Under the new map, the district–which encompasses Syracuse’s south side–would go from 59% Black to just 37%. McMahon said it doesn’t violate any laws though because the district still has a majority minority population.

However, Jeffrey Wice, an adjunct professor and senior fellow at New York Law School, said that change could violate the federal Voting Rights Act.

“Under the Voting Rights Act, where you have a high level of polarized voting, you have to create a district for Blacks alone or Hispanics alone, but not a combination of them,” said Wice.

McMahon said that after several south side residents and activists raised concerns about this, he discussed it with the legislature and they all agreed the district lines need to be revised.

“I've talked to all the leaders about the fact that I want legislative district 16 addressed and all the legislative leaders are on board with that,” said McMahon.

However, Vernon Williams Jr., the legislator for that district, said the Republicans who drew that map knew exactly what they were doing and that it was for partisan gain.

“That was the most partisan map I've ever seen in my life,” he said.

And the legislature’s Democratic Caucus said while they applaud McMahon’s decision, that there’s much more change that should be done.

“The reason the County Executive cited in his veto is simply one of many reasons why our caucus unanimously and with bipartisan support voted against these illegal maps,” said a statement released by the caucus.

However, the Republican Caucus said they didn’t mean to be partisan or to stray from the 5% deviation regulation, and that they were simply just errors.

“While we applaud the Commission’s efforts to increase minority representation in the City, we also feel it’s important to use this opportunity to explore possible improvements based on the feedback we have received,” the caucus said in a statement.

However, Williams pushed back on that saying the Republicans had several public hearings to listen to their constituents and that they are just now choosing to do so.

“So you didn't listen to the community the first time,” said Williams. “But now all of a sudden, you want to listen, like make it make sense.”

McMahon said that, while he listened to everyone who spoke at the public hearing he held last week, they were very partisan comments made by Democrats within the county.

“Mind you, many of these individuals were our political activists of a political party that is the opposite political party than is in charge of the process,” said McMahon.

The county charter doesn’t specify what the next steps are once the county executive vetoes the map but Williams said starting over without legislative input is essential to fair redistricting.

“I think that the legislature should not be redrawing these maps at all,” he said. “I think that it's too partisan. It can't happen.”

Williams is one of the six democrats on the county legislature and one of eight who voted against the map. He doesn’t believe the map will ever be nonpartisan unless it's drawn by independent citizens, so he’s expecting a lawsuit sooner or later.

“Unfortunately, we're probably gonna have to go through the courts to get a real map and solutions done,” he said.