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An End to Gerrymandering?

Gov. Andrew Cuomo introduces a bill that would take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature

by Jason Chura on February 23, 2011

Redistricting time is almost upon us; the time when the controlling party of state Senate and Legislature celebrates its majority rule through the act of adjusting district boundaries to reflect national census results. These borders are redrawn every 10 years per the U.S. Constitution. Traditionally, the new borders give party members and favored incumbents an edge in subsequent elections, an edge that has contributed to an inflated incumbency reelection rate. The next such redistricting is set to occur in 2012, but new legislation proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Thursday seeks to ensure that when the borders are redrawn next year, the process is as far out of legislators’ hands as possible.

Cuomo’s legislation reportedly was introduced to head off independent redistricting legislation from Speaker Sheldon Silver’s office. That bill was expected to be a much weaker version of what Cuomo has proposed. Meanwhile, opposition to independent redistricting from Senate Republicans appears to be mounting.

If predictions from those familiar with the makeup of New York state are to be trusted, independent redistricting could permanently exile Republicans to the minority because, experts say, without gerrymandered districts, the sheer number of Democrats in the state should overwhelm Republicans.

The Redistricting Reform Act would establish an independent commission tasked with redrawing congressional and state legislative districts free from partisan influence. By taking the process out of the hands of legislators, the governor hopes to ensure “greater independence, transparency, and a commitment to fair representation and equality,” according to a press release from Cuomo’s office regarding the proposed legislation.

An eight-person bipartisan committee appointed by the executive and legislative branches would select the 11-person commission from a pool representative of the state’s diversity. Eligible candidates cannot have held office in the Legislature or Congress for four years prior to service. The bill also bars employees and spouses of legislators as well as party officers and lobbyists for the same four-year cool-down period.

“The bill excludes a number of people who would be very knowledgeable about redistricting from having any role at all, at least until the end of the process,” said Assemblyman John McEneny (D-Albany), who is not a fan of independent redistricting. “If we were going to do that, we should also exclude anyone who has run for the Legislature or Congress, or their spouses or employees. Fair is fair. Who’s left? The answer might be Canadians. That way, we’d have completely unbiased people.”

Once selected, the commission would hold open meetings across the state and would be required to post its plans and proposals as well as all relevant data online. Proposals would then be voted on by the Legislature and revised up to three times before being sent to the courts, which would then pick the proposal that is most faithful to the loose criteria laid out in the reform bill: contiguous borders, equally populated, that maintain minority voting rights and do not help or hinder any party or incumbent.

Districts will also seek to limit the swing margin to 1 percent, down from as high as 5 percent in some districts.

“There’s too much concern from people on the outside looking in who want more competitive districts. That in itself can lead to bad government, said McEneny. “Are we drawing the districts for entertainment value for one month or are we drawing them for two years of governing? If you draw districts that may be strongly one party or the other because that’s the way the people are, you’re going to get better and truer representation of people that actually know their constituents.”

McEneny also pointed out some districts that at first glance look have been gerrymandered in fact owe their irregular shapes to other factors. The district derisively called “Lincoln’s hat,” for example, owes its irregular border to the 2-centuries-old Herkimer county line. Other reasons include topography, the need to maintain municipal boundaries or to maintain civil rights counties established by the United States Justice department.

The legislation fulfills a main tenet of the New York Uprising Pledge proposed by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch during last year’s election season. The pledge, which was signed by the governor as well as the majority of state legislators including all 32 Senate Republicans, called for legislators to commit to ethics reform and responsible budgeting as well as legislation to establish independent redistricting.
“This legislation would replace the current ‘incumbent protection program’ and partisan gerrymandering with a system based on independence, sound criteria, and greater citizen involvement,” Koch said in a statement. “I urge the Legislature to move quickly and pass this long overdue reform.”

McEneny is among the legislators that declined to sign the pledge.
“Very few experienced members would have signed that pledge just because it was a sound bite, not a specific pledge,” he said. “If you have a specific piece of legislation like the Gianaris bill, then you know exactly what we’re talking about. [The NY Uprising pledge] was somewhat vague.”

The split is decidedly more partisan in the state Senate. Though several Senate Democrats have come out in favor of the legislation, none of the 32 Senate Republicans that have signed the pledge had stepped forward to co-sponsor the governor’s proposed legislation when the Senate adjourned

In a statement, Austin Shafran, spokesman for the Senate Democratic Conference, called out Senate Republicans: “Attempting to bury Gov. Cuomo’s legislation in the Senate Rules Committee to anonymously avoid the oversight and accountability the public deserves, not a single GOP member will attach his or her name to this important reform. Before the elections, every Senate Republican and their leader, signed Mayor Koch’s pledge for independent redistricting, yet none of them will sign on to sponsor the bill.”

“The issue of redistricting reform is an important one and I have said repeatedly that we will act on reform legislation,” said Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos in a statement. “A number of proposals have been advanced and we have to take a close look at what makes the most sense to ensure a fair, open and truly nonpartisan process.” Skelos also stated that the budget remains Republicans’ top priority, and his office reiterated this position when asked for comment on Shafran’s statement.

“The moment for change has arrived; and the time has come for pledges made to become promises kept,” said Senate Democratic Leader John Sampson in a statement. “Governor Cuomo has introduced legislation that keeps his commitment to reform, and I am calling on the Senate to do the same by immediately passing his legislation when we return to Albany.”

If legislators cannot come to a compromise that allows for some kind of independent control over the redistricting process, Cuomo has threatened to veto any redistricting plans passed under current legislation thereby putting this round of redistricting in the hands of the courts.

“One thing I don’t want is Mayor Koch controlling any district in upstate New York,” McEneny said.