New York Redistricting Reform Plans Go Awry
2011 was going to be the year that the New York legislature put a stop to partisan gerrymandering.
The legislature had pledged that it would assign an independent commission to redraw the state legislative and congressional districts. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. The legislature is refusing to make good on its promise to proceed with independent redistricting, and good government groups can’t decide what to do about it.
Every 10 years, following the release of new U.S. Census data, the bicameral New York State legislature redraws the boundaries for Congressional voting districts. Historically, the process, known as “redistricting,” has been an “inside job“: politicians in the legislature are in charge of redrawing their own districts, leading to considerable logrolling and funky gerrymandering as parties attempt to maintain control of districts, reported WNYC’s The Empire. For this reason, only 3 percent of the incumbent members of New York’s legislature are defeated by their opponents in each election, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch told Brian Lehrer on WNYC.
The redistricting stakes are high this year. New York has a Republican majority in the Senate and a Democratic majority in the Assembly, and according to 2010 Census data, New York’s population shrank, requiring the state to lose two congressional seats.
After former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s awkward resignation because of a sexting scandal, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called a special election for Weiner’s 9th Congressional District. It was basically assumed that a Democrat would take the heavily Democratic district, and that the seat would be dissolved in 2013. In exchange for the loss of a Democratic seat the Republicans would agree to drop one of their seats upstate, reported the Huffington Post. However, in a surprising turn of events, on Sept. 13 Republican Bob Turner won the district’s seat. Now, the Democrats are likely trying to decide which seat they’ll lose, reported the Syracuse Post-Standard. The fate of the 9th District seat is still unknown.
A Quinnipiac poll from June 23, 2010 reported that two-thirds of New York voters believed that legislators should create an independent body to redraw district lines.
In 2010, a coalition called ReShape New York, composed of good government groups united with Cuomo and former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, called for an end to partisan gerrymandering. To the surprise of cynics, they managed to get 60 out of 62 State Senators and 121 out of 150 Assembly members to sign a pledge that they would pursue an independent, non-partisan redistricting process, reported WNYC. This would entail the creation of an independent redistricting commission to draw the new district lines, as opposed to the old standard of the legislature going at the map with its own pens.
—Former New York City Mayor Ed Koch
If all went smoothly, this would be a boost for democracy within the state. Votes would be fairly reapportioned and so-called “communities of interest,” where voters tend to be united behind common issues and circumstances, would not be broken up in order to reduce their voting power.
And who is to say it couldn’t go smoothly? After all, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research (LATFOR) — the group charged with studying and aiding the redistricting process in New York — recently agreed (to the surprise of many) to uphold a new law requiring redistricting to count prisoners in the districts where they hail from, rather than where they’re incarcerated, reported the Times Union.
A bill was created in the last legislative session to foster an independent redistricting process, reported Lower Hudson Blog.
But the bill wasn’t adopted by the legislature, reported WNYC. In fact, the legislature still has not made any strides toward an independent redistricting process.
Currently, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research is holding meetings around the state to gauge the public’s opinion on how the process is going. These meetings will last through October. Members of ReShape New York have been in attendance. As one might imagine, they aren’t pleased with the legislature’s progress.
And now redistricting reform proponents are in disagreement over what to do next.
- Cuomo has stood by the promise he made last year to veto any partisan redistricting plan, reported Lower Hudson Blog. But he has not pushed for an independent redistricting commission.
- Koch has responded by reprimanding the legislature, saying “We hope that the state legislature comes to its senses and say they’d rather be a partner of the process rather than a victim of the process,” WNYC reported. Koch, along with ReShaping New York member and government reform group Citizens Union, is determined to see an independent commission come to fruition.
- Other members have broken with Koch and Citizens Union. The non-profit lobbying group Common Cause, for instance, is claiming hope for an independent commission is now futile, and saying that the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and the legislature should focus on the goal of non-partisan redistricting through the same means it always has, reported the Times Union.
Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research co-chair Assemblyman Jack McKeneny talks about being called an “enemy of the people” by Ed Koch. Video courtesy of New York NOW.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause, told Brian Lehrer, “What we’re talking about is the character of our democracy. Do we the voters get to choose or do the political parties get to choose? And I think the voters of New York have spoken pretty strongly. They want to choose.”
Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research co-chair, Assemblyman Jack McEneny, told WNYC that Cuomo should wait to see what kind of redistricting map the legislature passes into law before making a decision to veto it.