Redistricting: Its Past, Present, Future - And Why It Matters


By Jude Seymour

Whether cynical or warranted, polls suggest the majority of New Yorkers neither approve of their state legislator’s past performance nor trust them to do the right thing in the future.

Voters also say their state representative isn’t capable of fixing state government or tackling the state’s “serious” budget issues.

So it is either with great hubris or willful ignorance that state legislators tried last week to determine how best to protect their incumbencies.

While lawmakers invoke laudable aims such as "fairness" and "independence," it appears their strong fears of losing their seats - and their status - primarily drives the redistricting reform fight.

No party is immune to the temptation of self-preservation. Both would share equal blame for their failings so far, if only the public weren’t largely checked out on the issue.

"Let me put it to you this way. We had the St. Patrick's Day parade in Binghamton," said Sen. Tom Libous, in a recent "Capital Tonight" interview. "Forty thousand people. Nobody ran up to me and said, 'Get the redistricting bill done.' They need jobs. They want their taxes cut." 

New Yorkers can grasp what it means to tax a millionaire or take away some school aid. The drawing of boundary lines for political purposes lacks the same sex appeal, although equal representation is as important – or, arguably, more important – than both of those issues.

Where we’ve been

The majorities of state Assembly and Senate have a tacit agreement to independently determine where their district boundary lines fall.

While all districts should contain equal amounts of residents, the laws do allow a little wiggle room. Both parties have used that to their advantage.

Democrats underpopulate downstate Assembly districts to create more of them, because of heavy registration advantages in New York City and its outlying areas.

Republicans do the same to upstate Senate districts. In fact, Patty Ritchie's district is the smallest of the 62 created during the 2001 redistricting. (That link opens a PDF file.) 

This "incumbency protection program" resulted in some oddly configured boundaries which connected communities not by their common needs, but by their voter registrations.

Senate Republicans were largely able to protect their own during the 2001 redistricting. But in the almost 10 years since the last constitutionally-required process, Democrats have picked up about 600,000 voters statewide, while Republicans lost about 200,000.

When Democrats seized control of the Senate after the 2008 elections, then-President Pro Tem Malcolm Smith bragged to party members that they would "draw the lines so that Republicans will be in oblivion in the state of New York for the next 20 years."

While Smith's subsequent contention that even a "fair" drawing of boundaries would result in a Democratic majority may be technically correct given the enrollment figures, his "oblivion" comment further underscored the need to take the process out of partisan hands.

With government dysfunction at an all-time high and control of the Senate uncertain heading into the 2010 campaigns, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch called for candidates to pledge to ensure upcoming redistricting was done in a non-partisan and independent fashion.

All 32 Republicans elected last fall signed the pledge, while 26 Democrats followed suit. It was easily enough to ensure that decades of gerrymandering would soon come to an end - and yet...

Where we are

Perhaps recognizing that prior redistricting had managed to protect the incumbents that New Yorkers say are responsible for their dysfunctional government, 64 percent of respondents to a late January Quinnipiac poll said an independent commission should do the next round of redistricting.

One out of four respondents thought legislators should remain in control.

With lawmakers approaching Koch's self-imposed March 1 deadline to sponsor redistricting bills - or face his wrath - Gov. Andrew Cuomo brought the issue to the front burner by introducing his own legislation.

Cuomo's bill turned the process over to an independent body - or, as "independent" as one may get in any process where the executive and Legislature pick the players. It also shrunk the amount of deviation - what I earlier called wiggle room - between district populations to discourage a partisan drawing of lines.

Koch backed the bill. Senate Republicans, however, weakly argued that redistricting reform would improperly shift focus away from budget deliberations - as if lawmakers could not "walk and chew gum" at the same time, as Sen. Mike Ginaris remarked.

A Quinnipiac poll released late last month suggested the majority of New Yorkers felt the redistricting reforms were being overshadowed by budget talk.

Senate Republicans threw a second wrench in the works by suggesting there were "constitutional concerns" with Cuomo's proposal, although they did not make that objection the prior fall when it was politically expedient to remain quiet.

To assuage concerns they were walking away from redistricting, the Senate's GOP majority advocated for a bill that created a non-partisan panel through a constitutional amendment - although that would not be ready in time for this round of redistricting.

Where we need to be

Republicans push for a constitutional change is laudable, but by itself is not sufficient.

New Yorkers do not want to wait 10 years to fix a system that has, for too long, protected incumbents, unnecessarily divided communities between legislative districts, diluted minority voting blocs and perpetuated distrust of government and dysfunction in government.

Senate Democrats say they are ready to move now - and have complained of being unable to unstick Cuomo's bill from the Republican-controlled Rules Committee.

But they are not absolved of blame, either.

Despite having a few redistricting reforms to choose from, Democrats didn't put any of them up for a vote during the two years they held the majority.

Republicans often trot out this point to deflect criticism about their recent actions, seemingly oblivious that it creates an equally valid counter-argument. They had seven years after the last redistricting to make reforms and did nothing either.

The fight reminds me of a similar disagreement last year. The Senate and Assembly passed ethics reforms that were better than the rules currently in place.

Gov. Paterson vetoed the bill, saying the reforms didn't go far enough. Senate Republicans then refused to help Senate Democrats override the veto, agreeing with Paterson's premise that half-measures were insufficient. Democrats subsequently blasted the Republicans for failing to move forward on ethics reforms.

Senate Democrats - with the exception of the independent gang of four - did not support the Republicans' constitutional amendment.

How then can Democrats blame Republicans for not supporting a half-measure in ethics reforms when they themselves do not support a half-measure in redistricting?

Since New Yorkers want changes to the redistricting process this year, it's safe to say they wouldn't want this problem to exist for an additional 20 years. But polling suggests Senate Republicans haven't gone far enough to tackle the more immediate redistricting dilemma.

Why you should care

New Yorkers are angered by their dysfunctional government, yet they appear to have lost faith in their elections system to make that needed change.

They may consider it a rigged game. Boundaries are drawn every decade to serve partisan interests, to include or exclude certain candidates and to protect incumbency.

The promise of independent redistricting is that it could spark more orderly, more fair and more competitive elections.

If boundaries are drawn with respect to shared geographic, social and economic interests, it's a win-win. Lawmakers would have more compact districts that were easier to travel, which would theoretically allow them more time for constituent interaction.

A compact district would help elections boards that attempt to coordinate multi-county Senate and Assembly races. And it helps encourage voter and candidate participation, by not excluding anyone for partisan reasons. Incumbents may be forced to defend their positions in a meaningful way, instead of being helped by boundary drawings to insure there's no serious competition.

Redistricting is not a panacea for New York's ills, but it's a start in the right direction.

tl;dr version

Polling suggests New Yorkers want immediate changes to the redistricting process to make it less partisan and more fair to all voters.

Republicans and Democrats are equally to blame for the lack of action so far.

New Yorkers, polls say, want lawmakers to uphold their pledge to make the redistricting process more independent this year. Republicans will be commended by some for introducing a permanent fix to the problem. But it's important to remember that their their proposed solution will do nothing to repair a broken system for the next go-around.

Redistricting offers the promise of more orderly, more fair and more competitive elections.

History suggests New Yorkers should be skeptical when listening to any politicians who blames the other party for why meaningful redistricting reform hasn't been accomplished. Both sides have had their chance. So far, nothing has been done.

Most Popular

Saturday, December 10, 2016
, Watertown, NY

On Demand

This content requires the latest Adobe Flash Player and a browser with JavaScript enabled. Click here for a free download of the latest Adobe Flash Player.