Schenectady County Legislature pushes for weighted voting

Faced with a need to reapportion seats, the Schenectady County Legislature is proposing to change th

Faced with a need to reapportion seats, the Schenectady County Legislature is proposing to change the weight of votes cast by legislators in each district rather than add nine more seats to the 15-member board and redraw district boundary lines, according to County Attorney Chris Gardner.

The Legislature will discuss the proposal tonight and will hold a public hearing on a local law to amend the County Charter in May. The Legislature is expected to adopt the local law following the public hearing, Gardner said.

The charter mandates the Legislature review its representation following the decennial census. The 2010 Census showed that Schenectady County’s population increased 5.6 percent — the first time since the 1970 Census. The city of Schenectady saw the largest growth, followed by Niskayuna and Glenville.

The growth has affected the formula used to calculate how many people each legislator can represent, with the charter limiting a population deviation to 7.5 percent above or below the average population per legislator. According to Gardner, District 2 saw an 8 percent increase in average population per legislator while District 4 saw a 10 percent decrease in average population per legislator. District 2 comprises the southern half of the city and District 4 comprises Rotterdam, Princetown and Duanesburg.

In addition to the charter issue, the new population figures of the districts violate federal constitutional requirements outlined under the landmark 1964 Supreme Court case of “one man, one vote,” Gardner said. The case set a population deviation of 10 percent. He said there is an 18 percent deviation in average population between District 1 and District 4.

Gardner said the charter and the constitutional requirements would call for the addition of nine more seats, bringing the Legislature to 24 seats, to comply with the guidelines. This would necessitate the redrawing of district boundaries, thereby increasing the possibility of gerrymandering and the cost of county government, he said. A legislator receives an annual stipend of $14,000, plus some also receive health insurance benefits.

In order to rectify both charter and constitutional requirements, the 13-member Democratic caucus in the county Legislature approved a proposal to change the weight of each legislator’s vote, Gardner said. Republicans have two seats on the board; they were not part of the discussions, said Minority Leader Robert Farley, R-Glenville. “This is another case of the Democrats trying to ram legislation down the public’s throats,” he said.

Under the Democrats’ proposal, the vote of each of the three county legislators in District 1, comprising the northern half of the city, would be worth 1.05; the vote of each of the three county legislators in District 2 would be worth 1.07.

The vote of each of the five legislators representing District 3, consisting of Niskayuna and Glenville, would be worth .99; and the vote of each of the four county legislators in District 4 would be worth .9.

“This would give a perfect ‘one person, one vote’ representation to every person in the county,” Gardner said. “It also is a way to keep the current intent of the charter, which is to have multi-member districts, and it avoids the hazards of single member districts and avoids gerrymandering. Weighted voting is the best solution,” Gardner said.

Farley said he opposes the Democrats’ proposal. “Weighted voting systems create problems. It is not well-advised and only a few county Legislatures have weighted vote systems. They apply more to boards of supervisors,” he said.

Farley said he will bring a lawsuit against the county should it proceed with the proposal. “We will look into litigation because not only are they violating the charter and the rules of the county Legislature, they are also purporting to do a plan that is constitutionally suspect,” he said. “They are trying to increase the weight of the vote of their political affinity in the city. We will not stand back and allow the Democrats in caucus to violate citizens’ rights to representation.”

Gardner said the proposal is sound both legally and fiscally. “Simply put, this is the cost-effective, good-government solution which would ensure compliance with all constitutional requirements. It would retain existing legislative boundaries, and the same number of legislators per district,” he said.

County Legislator Vincent DiCerbo, D-Schenectady, said he does not favor adding more legislators to the board. “We have enough now. This proposal is more fair if you subscribe to ‘one man, one vote.’ ”

County Legislator Philip Fields, D-Schenectady, said the “proposal before us appears to be a good proposal. I don’t think adding to the cost of government is an option at a time when we are trying to reduce cost of government. The city will have a greater vote with same representation,” he said. Were the county to expand the Legislature, the city would still have a greater representation, as it would receive the most seats in the reorganization.

Joseph Zimmerman, a professor in the department of political science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy, said the county already has a weighted vote system and that the proposed change is “not revolutionary.”

“They are conforming to the Supreme Court ruling, as you have to redistribute the weight carried by each vote. The city gained more population and will therefore have more weight,” Zimmerman said.

He said the county’s proposal is the simplest solution to the apportionment question and appears constitutional. “This is rather simple to do, all you have to have is someone who knows something about mathematics,” he said. “It more accurately reflects the population of each district.”

Categories: Schenectady County

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