EDITORIAL: Give public more of a say in redistricting process

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PHOTOGRAPHER:

We’ve known this day was coming for the past couple hundred years.

Not this exact date or situation, but the general action that needs to be taken.

Every 10 years, after the census is completed, we go through the arduous process of redrawing the lines for congressional and state legislative districts.

It’s really a simple act on the surface. Adjust the lines to account for population shifts over the past decade in order to create districts with roughly the same number of people in them.

But the process, probably from the start, has been heavily politicized, with the political party in power using its clout to draw the lines to favor electing more of their own party, to the detriment of others.

Attempts to create independent bodies to determine the districts have proven fruitless. New York state voters in 2014 voted to create an Independent Redistricting Commission to draw the lines — the idea being that parties would work together to come up with boundaries that were fair and accurately reflected the political makeup of the voters in the regions.

But that failed its first and only test earlier this year when politics dominated the process. Republicans and Democrats couldn’t agree on maps, so the redistricting went to the default option — allowing the Legislature to draw the lines. That put the ball squarely back into the political arena, and with Democrats dominating both houses of the Legislature and the governor’s office, they designed lines so heavily partisan in their favor that a court appointed entirely by Democratic governors felt compelled to throw the lines out.

Now a “special master,” someone with expertise on district boundaries, is conducting the task under a very strict time frame — all legislative and congressional seats (in the House) are up for re-election this year.

So it’s imperative that the boundaries be drawn quickly so candidates can begin to campaign in the correct districts and so the state can hold primary elections for all those seats.

Being left out of this entire process are the very people this redistricting affects the most, the citizens of the state of New York.

There’s simply no procedure in place to allow a full public airing of the issues related to redrawing the lines.

Community activists, local public officials and ordinary voters all have a stake in the outcome of this decision — which will be in place for the next decade.

The IRC did hold public hearings last year as officials were formulating the maps that have since been disqualified. Yet officials built in no time for the public to be heard in adequate numbers on the latest maps.

Only one public hearing for the entire state was scheduled on the redistricting, held Friday in the state Supreme Court chambers in the town of Bath, a tiny community located in the middle of the state just south of Rochester.

People could submit their views in writing, but if they wanted to comment they had to show up in person, as remote commenting was not made available.

That means everyone who had an argument to make in the entire state who wanted to address the court in person had to show up for this one hearing in a far-away rural community courthouse.

Those with valid interests in the outcome of the process include groups advocating for social justice and organizations representing ethnic and racial groups, who want to ensure their constituents are fairly represented in the redistricting.

In some states like Florida, districts were designed in a way to reduce the influence of certain ethnic and racial groups, including eliminating districts currently represented by people of color.

The impact of such decisions could significantly impact legislation and financial support from the government for the interests of these individuals.

So the court needs to make time for these people to be heard — and not just one time for the entire state in one small courtroom.

First, state lawmakers should move the upcoming primaries to September, which would give the special master more time to determine the district lines. Right now, the deadline for the special master to submit his draft of the new lines is May 16, eight days from today.

If all the state primaries are moved to mid-September, that would give him more time to make a decision, allowing the state to schedule more public hearings in regions throughout the state on the new maps.

They’d need just seven or eight.

For instance, they could hold one each in the Buffalo-Niagara area, Syracuse-Rochester, North Country, Capital Region, Hudson Valley, a couple in New York City and one on Long Island. At least then the special master would hear from a wide cross-section of the state and allow minority and civil rights groups a reasonable opportunity to be heard.

Excluding the public from a decision-making process that so directly affects them for such a long period of time is unfair and will only help ensure that the districts designed to provide fair representation do anything but.

The state might not be able to remove the politics from the process entirely, but it could make it less political by including more voices of the people.

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