What good are promises when you can’t keep them? We all know the deal, or at least most of us should: Politicians running for public office often use sharp rhetoric in order to garner support. Their speeches are filled with pledges to do this and change that. It’s quite impressive how they manage to come off rather genuine and thought-provoking, even though it’s just a political ploy to convince voters that they are going to change the landscape of politics and government once elected.
But what if the actual landscape of New York is at risk of changing because of broken promises? What if gerrymandering is alive and kicking?
This seems to be the case, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Senate Republicans have brokered a back-room deal that will allow the Republicans’ redistricting plan to be passed and signed into law in exchange for a promise made by legislative leaders to amend the state’s constitution to include independent redistricting by 2022.
‘Politics as usual’
This goes against Cuomo’s campaign pledge to veto any hyper-partisan redistricting plan that reaches his desk, and Senate Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ promise to create an independent commission to propose a redistricting plan for this year.
Some would call it shameful. Others would call them liars. I prefer to call it politics as usual.
There isn’t much that is more damaging to our democracy than giving politicians the legislative power to draw district lines. But that’s just what our constitution allows.
With the release of new census data every 10 years, the concept of redistricting is about responding to changes in population and making sure that electoral district boundaries are equitable to people of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds. It is an extremely important process and one that several states, including our neighbor New Jersey, decided that elected officials should have less involvement in.
One needs to ask the question, though: How much faith should the people of New York have in a simple promise?
From the looks of it, concessions have already been made that will continue to give the state Legislature the final say when it comes to approving a redistricting plan, so if a constitutional amendment is passed, it won’t kill gerrymandering.
It’s also plain to see that neither political party wants to lose power over redistricting, but in an attempt to appease good-government groups, they are willing to make some small changes to the constitution to include independent redistricting. We don’t know all the details yet, but one would be hard-pressed to believe that the Legislature is willing to severely limit its own power and appoint an independent commission to draw new lines. Besides, politicians have no incentive to do so.
Gerrymandering is a highly partisan tool used by the political party in power to improve its voting districts by readjusting lines so that more of its own party-line voters are included in incumbent districts and less in the opposition party’s.
Is there a choice?
What other choices do New Yorkers have, though?
There are two ways to amend the constitution. One is through a constitutional convention, the other through a legislative-referred constitutional amendment, which the leaders have sworn to do — eventually.
When it comes to a constitutional convention, there exists an automatic ballot referral provision that requires the state to ask voters every 20 years, via statewide ballot, whether they want to hold a convention. This started in 1957, but there has never been such a ballot referral-initiated convention to date and voters won’t have another crack at it until 2017. That is, unless the Legislature decides to place a similar question on the ballot as it did in 1965, which led to the 1967 voter-approved convention — the last one held.
Once a constitutional convention was approved, voters would then have to elect delegates to propose amendments. These delegates would form committees, depending on their expertise, and then create propositions to be voted on by the public during the next election cycle.
When it comes to a legislative-referred constitutional amendment, two consecutively elected Legislatures would have to approve it. The amendment would then be placed on the ballot at a special or general election for voters to decide.
Vote it down
It’s clear that Cuomo and Senate Republicans are deferring pledges they’ve made to an unknown future date in hopes that New Yorkers will forget everything they’ve heard and read. Thus, we are left with only one option — spread the word that the promises made in Albany are not in our best interest and vote down the amendment if it ever happens to make it to a ballot.
In the meantime, we must insist that a constitutional convention be held by calling our elected officials and marching in Albany — demanding that they place a convention question on the next ballot.
We, the people, have an opportunity to properly amend the constitution, instead of settling for a false representation of reform that we don’t want and that changes very little when it comes to the process of redistricting. What will it be?
Robert Caracciolo lives in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.