Op-ed column: Parties redistrict state to their own advantage

But New York can at least start the reform process by heeding Gov. Cuomo’s call for an objective, ne

The map of New York is about to be redrawn. Don’t worry — we’re not about to give up land to New Jersey or Vermont. This happens every 10 years: The state Legislature redraws the district lines for the state Assembly, the state Senate, and finally, New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives. Remember that wave election (one in which at least 20 seats swing from one party to the other) in 2010? Well, there is a good chance that the representative you voted in might not be your representative come 2012.

Why? Well, it’s redistricting season. And that means every state Assembly and Senate district is going to be shifted around, supposedly to better reflect the state’s population. And because of the 2010 census, New York is set to lose two congressional seats.

Case in point

Now, there’s nothing wrong about being drawn into another district — unless it’s as a result of politics. For an example of the way politics plays into this redistricting, take a look at what happened in Brooklyn, where a Republican unexpectedly won former Rep. Anthony Weiner’s congressional seat. Democrats had expected to win this seat, and were probably going to sacrifice it as one of those two “losses.”

But then, the Republican won. And now, it is being speculated that the GOP might want to hold onto this seat — and thereby force the Democrats to put another seat of their own on the chopping block.

If you’re a Democrat or Republican, you might think the other party is up to its old tricks again. But the truth is, the response to either outcome represents a political game being played at the expense of the voters.

This sort of politics-before-people game is widespread, and it’s not limited to congressional reapportionment. Our state Legislature will see some shifts as well. Ever wonder why the state Senate tends to be Republican, while the state Assembly tends to be Democratic? Aren’t both supposed to be accurate and fair reflections of New York’s electorate? Not quite. If you carve up the same state in two different ways, you’ll get two different results.

It’s as simple as this: Republicans win Senate seats, sometimes unexpectedly, and try to hold them through some creative cartography.

Democrats play the same game, but with more success in the Assembly. The game: try to keep the seats you have, try to split up the other parties’ districts and absorb the small pieces into yours. Similar tactics will undoubtedly be used for our state’s new House delegation — it’s how it always works. Whoever happens to control Albany at the beginning of each decade usually gets what they want. If the parties split power, they have to compromise.

Defying logic

These three bizarre patchworks that result — Assembly, Senate, and House — can defy logic.

Take New York’s representation in the House. Schenectady lies in the 21st district. The neighboring district, the 20th, goes from Lake Placid in the north to Hyde Park in the south, hugging the border with Massachusetts but avoiding Troy. The 22nd district straddles Ithaca and Poughkeepsie, including Binghamton in between. These cities remain intact, but the city of Buffalo is mysteriously split between NY-27 and NY-28. The latter district includes portions of Rochester — the inner city, but none of the surrounding environs.

This is confusing, arbitrary and driven by politics — not a desire for effective representation. The good news is that Gov. Andrew Cuomo has vowed to veto any plan that doesn’t come from an independent commission. The bad news is that state Legislators are dragging their feet. And why wouldn’t they? If we use an independent plan, it will mean that for the first time, they aren’t drawing their own districts.

It will also mean that the group of representatives that New York sends to Washington will be free of Albany politics.

One would think that it would be healthy for democracy to be insulated from political jockeying. But Cuomo’s idea hasn’t gained much momentum among the voters either, and for obvious reasons. Redistricting reform seems academic, and isn’t really a firebrand issue like jobs or education. Also, some people might look at the advantages their party gets and be satisfied with the current system.

Everybody loses

However, no matter if your party “wins” or “loses,” we all lose, in truth. Our representatives should get there because they won the people’s mandate, not because of cartographical tricks. Even if your party comes out “ahead” in the final count on Election Day, the winners will know why they won their seats. They’ll thank the state Legislature, and the party politics that got them their constructed victories, not the voters.

I can’t say whether or not the system should encourage “safe” seats or “toss-up” seats. Each has positives and drawbacks — that’s the nature of having districts. One has to wonder at what point the American people will begin to consider more serious Congressional reform. After all, the approval ratings for the institution are between 10 percent and 14 percent.

But New York can at least start the reform process by heeding Gov. Cuomo’s call for an objective, neutral mapmaking process. By severing redistricting from the petty partisanship of Albany, we could have a more responsive state Legislature, and could set an example for the rest of the nation. Maybe that’s the first step on the road toward ending dysfunction in government.

Steve Keller lives in Averill Park and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply