Jews have historically voted in higher numbers than other ethnic groups and have thus had an exaggerated impact on elections. But their impact — especially in toss-up states like Florida, Pennsylvania or Ohio — could be diminished if the U.S. Supreme Court decides by June to outlaw gerrymandering, the practice of drawing electoral districts to favor one political party over the other.
“If you accept the reality that Jews live in tightly packed areas, any ruling that would tend to unpack districts … would impact Jews,” said Larry Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, L.I.
Jews generally live in urban centers or in the suburbs surrounding them and, Levy said, “anytime a people is concentrated in a geographic area, they will be more impacted by gerrymandering than not.”
John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, said he believes this case is “one of the most crucial ever on voting rights.”
“I am not too sanguine about the outcome, but my [guess] is that Justice [Anthony] Kennedy may be willing to set some parameters on partisan gerrymandering,” he said in an email.
Kennedy is seen as the crucial, swing vote on the nine-member court. In a redistricting case 13 years ago, he suggested that courts could play a role in reviewing partisan-gerrymandering cases in the future if “manageable standards” could be developed for identifying which ones are extreme. Observers said he gave little indication which way he will vote in this case.
Most of the hour-long argument before the Supreme Court last week focused on whether the courts should get involved in reviewing partisan-gerrymandering cases at all and, if so, what standard or test should be used to review such claims.
“The issue presented here is whether or not the plaintiffs have found a new formula that could be used to figure out if a redistricting plan is extreme gerrymandering,” said Geoffrey Skelley, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “How might this affect minority groups? I don’t think it would have an impact,” he said. “It might be harder in general to nail down the Jewish population because when you are redistricting and using census data, the census does not ask about religion. … I think this case will not change the process of how state legislatures keep communities of interest together.”
David Pollock, associate executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said the justices are looking for a “theoretical thermometer so that if you take the temperature of a district and it reads 100, the district has a fever — gerrymandering — and it needs treatment. They didn’t find it 13 years ago and at this point the court is reviewing a variety of suggestions.”
Such a theoretical thermometer would make gerrymandering instantly recognizable and avoid what Chief Justice John Roberts said he feared — damage to the court’s institutional reputation. He argued that the court in this case might be opening itself to a flood of other partisan-gerrymandering claims, each of which it would be required to review. And because of the complex calculations used to reach a decision, Roberts said, the average person would believe the court had become partisan and would characterize its decisions as “a bunch of baloney.”
Justice Elena Kagan, however, pointed out that technology is now available that enables lawmakers to easily draw election districts, and that the same tools can be used to evaluate those districts.
There are two basic strategies used by political parties in gerrymandering. One is called “packing,” the practice of putting all of those of one political persuasion in one district. The other is known as “cracking” — splitting those of a particular political persuasion into “so many slivers that they could not possibly have the candidate of their choice elected,” Pollock said.
The practice of packing is seen in Brooklyn’s 22nd Senatorial District represented by Marty Golden. The district includes Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, Marine Park, Manhattan Beach and parts of Bensonhurst, Gerritsen Beach, Gravesend, Sheepshead Bay and Midwood. Golden is the only Republican state senator from Brooklyn.
How do you get a Republican seat in Brooklyn? The only way was to have many zigs and zags in order to gather together the isolated Republican enclaves.
“They united Republican voters to maintain the Republican majority in the State Senate,” Pollock observed. “They started drawing lines by trying to figure out which areas historically voted Republican — and then they drew everything around that. … Part of the reason the New York State Senate is majority Republican is because they were able to draw lines to unite Republicans.”
The 22nd Senatorial District is two-thirds white and 22 percent Asian. It encompasses Manhattan Beach on the south but cuts off the adjoining community of Coney Island, which is mostly Democratic.
The New York State constitution prioritizes the need for districts to be contiguousness and compact.
Similarly, the 17th Senatorial District of Democrat Simcha Felder was drawn in such a way that it encompasses much of the Orthodox Jewish community in central, southern and southwestern Brooklyn — from Borough Park on the west, to Flatbush and Midwood on the east, and “the tail sticking down is to pick up the Syrians,” Pollock said.
“Essentially the Orthodox Jews were packed together in this manner so that it would make it perfect for an Orthodox Jew — and Felder is Orthodox,” he explained. “Felder ran as a Democrat, but the Republican line drawers in the state Senate believed Felder would caucus with the Republicans, so they united Orthodox Jewish voters to make that happen. … The desire to maximize the clout of the Jewish vote is not a political goal; it is a desire to keep the Jewish community ethnically cohesive.”
But the Supreme Court could opt instead for “ethnic diversity and not cohesion,” pointed out William Helmreich, a professor of sociology at the City College of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. “This is a case where the court decides what it wants to do and then makes the facts fit … Kennedy has said he is looking to find a way that is not partisan.”
Helmreich noted that the drawing of electoral district lines “could make a difference between an Orthodox Jew or a Hispanic being elected. … The Asians in Sunset Park, the Muslims in adjacent Bay Ridge — any group that has people who vote as a bloc will make a difference.”
Pollock said it has been his job over the years to help ensure that the Jewish community’s voice is heard on Election Day. To do that, he has successfully argued, for instance, against attempts by electoral line drawers to split up the small Jewish community in Crown Heights.
“There were people who had political objectives and who felt that the Jewish community there did not align with their political objectives,” he explained.
Pollock noted that during the redistricting that occurred in 2012 — redistricting is done every 10 years based on the latest census — the JCRC “submitted an argument to the special master who was drawing the congressional lines that showed the contours of the Jewish communities in the New York metropolitan area. We made the argument that we didn’t care in whose district you put these communities as long as they were kept together. We were fortunate that his [eventual] map reflected our map.”
As a result, Jewish voters can be a bloc to be reckoned with. A 2014 article in the National Review pointed out that more than 90 percent of registered Jewish voters regularly vote in elections, and their concentration in such swing states as Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania make them an important voting bloc.
“By virtue of their higher turnout, Jews are able to translate their position of only 4.5 percent of Florida’s population into 8 percent of the vote,” it said.