The 2010 census is now under way, which means that New York and other states will soon be redistricting for the 2012 elections. How district lines are drawn, and by whom, will determine how competitive those elections are. This is an argument for the nonpartisan, independent redistricting commission that reformers want, that bills in the state Assembly and Senate now call for — and that, predictably and unfortunately, the leaders of the two chambers reject.
The current system, where the majority in each chamber draws the electoral map after a census, doesn’t work — at least not for voters. What it does is result in gerrymandered (oddly shaped districts) districts designed to ensure that the majority’s power and perks are maintained. In New York state it explains why the Senate Republicans (now with a 32-30 minority) were able to hold on to power for so long even in the face of rising Democratic enrollment.
It also helps explain the leader-driven system, where the rank and file are not real participants in budgeting or anything else, and rarely challenge their leader. Their reward is that they will run in a “safe” district and get re-elected, even if lazy, incompetent or corrupt — and in fact, incumbents in New York state get re-elected more than 95 percent of the time, and many run unopposed.
Now, after numerous scandals and a government that has ceased to function, things have become so bad that there’s growing support for an independent redistricting commission. Former Mayor Ed Koch is leading a group that has gotten all the declared gubernatorial candidates — and the undeclared candidate but presumptive winner, Attorney General Andrew Cuomo — to support nonpartisan redistricting reform.
There are also bills in both the Senate and Assembly, introduced by majority Democrats, that would establish a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Last week the Senate bill actually advanced through committee, but Democratic conference leader John Sampson doesn’t support it. Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver says he is willing to change the process to make elections more competitive, but also opposes an independent commission — and unlike Sampson, hasn’t committed to bringing the bill to the floor for a vote.
To the average voter redistricting may sound boring and academic, but it is anything but. It’s fundamental to a fair election, and anyone who wants our vote should have a position on it — and be willing to challenge their leaders if they continue to drag their feet.