Minority political empowerment in New York City: beyond the Voting Rights Act

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Date: Spring 1993
From: Political Science Quarterly(Vol. 108, Issue 1)
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 9,427 words

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The 1991 elections for the New York City Council resulted in substantial political change in the composition of that body. Minorities of virtually every description found themselves in new positions among the city's politically empowered communities. This article discusses how the districting process resulted in fundamental changes to the city's legislature. It suggests that the 1965 Voting Rights Act (the act) -- including its 1982 amendments and the developing case law -- is not the most appropriate method or tool by which to address the continuing empowerment of minority communities after their members are elected to public office in substantial numbers. The authors, who were key participant observers in this process, argue that the New York City districting process was a logical outgrowth of the act and that the act must be expanded to meet new needs.

Twelve African Americans (up from six) and nine Latinos (up from three) were elected to the new council. For the first time in the history of the city, a minority council member was elected to represent a district where less than 80 percent of the voting age population was minority. Indeed, this development occurred in four such districts. Two white council members were elected from districts where less than 20 percent of the voting age population were white. As for the minority political party, the number of Republicans increased from one to five. Two openly homosexual men were elected to the city's legislative branch. And five of the incumbents on the thirty-five seat council -- or one seventh -- either refused to run in new districts or lost in the primary or general election. The city saw its first Dominican and first Caribbean council members. A diversity intended by the 1988 Charter Revision Commission exceeded most expectations.(1)

Even considering that the council expanded in size by 45.7 percent (from 35 to 51), the effective increase in racial and language minority representation on the City Council was 15 percent of the body, from 26 percent to 41 percent. For the minority party, representation on the council increased by 7 percent of the body, from 3 percent (1 of 35) to 10 percent (5 of 51). Although the work of the Districting Commission, which had established the new political districts for the 1991 election, had been difficult and controversial, it had succeeded in its primary goal: the increased empowerment of various minority communities through a more diverse city council.


New York City's redistricting was required because of two events. The first was the 1990 census which affected the constitutional mandate that districts be drawn in accordance with "one person, one vote" requirements.(2) The second was peculiar to New York City. Revisions to the structure of the city's legislature, required because of successful court challenges to the previous form of local government, were mandated by a newly enacted City Charter. The second event had been a long time coming, as the City of New York had resisted for more than a decade legal...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A13906394