Petitioning for this year’s City Council elections, set to start next week, could now be delayed due to a lawsuit filed on Friday by a legal defense group on behalf of Asian American communities in south Queens that seek to alter the new council maps adopted during last year’s redistricting.
The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) brought the suit against the city Districting Commission — a 15-member body that drew and approved the new lines last year — and the city and state Boards of Election (BOE), according to a release the AALDEF shared.
The AALDEF filed the legal action Friday morning in New York County Supreme Court on behalf of 18 individual plaintiffs, who are all residents of south Queens, and Desis Rising Up and Moving, a community organization with members who live in the area.
The group alleges that the council maps the commission approved for the areas of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park violate the City Charter by carving up the area’s Asian American community, thus denying it “any reasonable chance of fair and effective representation.”
The plaintiffs said the area’s South Asian and Indo-Caribbean communities have historically been divided among several districts at the local, state and federal levels. This past redistricting, they said, spreads the community across three separate districts.
They’re asking the judge for emergency relief to delay petitioning for the upcoming City Council primary races, due to start next Tuesday, Feb. 28, until a revised redistricting plan that “complies with the Charter” is enacted. Jerry Vattamala, Democracy Program Director of the AALDEF, said he expects to hear from the court before Tuesday.
“As one of the fastest growing populations in the city, Richmond Hill/South Ozone Park has a thriving Asian American community made up of immigrant and native-born New Yorkers of Guyanese, Punjabi, Trinidadian, Surinamese, and Bengali descent,” Vattamala said.
“Yet despite the protections of the NYC Charter and our warnings throughout the redistricting process, the council map carved up the community and muffled their voices, continuing our city’s painful history of dividing, marginalizing, and disenfranchising communities of color,” he added. “This is an important community whose members contribute to our city every day, and they deserve a reasonable opportunity to elect a candidate of their choice.”
According to the City Charter, the new council districts were supposed to be drawn without lessening the voting power of underrepresented groups, a provision required by the national Voting Rights Act of 1965. In the city those groups include: Asian Americans, Blacks and Latinos, Vattamala said.
“What’s different this cycle is that we’re fighting back, we’re gonna take this type of disenfranchisement and discrimination any longer,” Vattamala said during a press conference announcing the suit at City Hall on Friday.
Patrick Stegemoeller, one of the group’s attorney’s, said the communities of Richmond Hill and South Ozone Park were involved in drafting a “Unity Map” that created an “opportunity district” for the area’s Asian American communities that preserved surrounding Black-majority districts. That map was presented to the commission, he said, but was “ignored,” in favor of a final plan that prioritized surrounding white-majority communities.
“Instead of adopting the Unity map, the Commission ignore the law, ignored the voices of these communities and embraced a plan that illegally elevates a white community at the expense of Asian New Yorkers in Richmond Hill, South Ozone Park,” Stegemoeller said.
While the redistricting maps were approved over three months ago, Stegemoeller said, it took until now — just days before petitioning is supposed to begin — to file the suit because of the complexity of the case.
“The case is very fact intensive, [it] required getting reports from multiple experts and doing RPV (Racially Polarized Voting) analysis on the impacted districts,” he said. “It is also a novel legal question, as this exact type of case has never been brought before on the provision of the Charter that we are alleging they violated. All of that takes a lot of time to wrangle.”
Although it’s a tight timeframe for the suit, Vattamala said, last year’s state-level redistricting challenge — which threw out initial Congressional and state Senate maps, called for them to be redrawn and pushed back the primaries — sets a precedent for making last minute changes.
A spokesperson for the districting commission had yet to respond for comment by publication time.
Disclosure: Joshua Schneps, publisher of amNY, is a member of the city Districting Commission.