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Back to the Drawing Board
The Albany County Legislature must re-redistrict after a federal judge says it improperly accounted for its minority constituents

A federal magistrate issued a halt to Albany County’s legislative elections, slated to begin in September, and ordered the county to begin again a redistricting process that has been mired in partisan politics and racial overtones.

Magistrate David R. Homer granted a temporary injunction on this fall’s elections in response to a lawsuit accusing the Albany County Legislature of gerrymandering its 39 voting districts to benefit the Democratic majority at the expense of minorities. The judge also ordered the legislature to include the plaintiffs in the planning process when redrawing its skewed maps.

Every 10 years, in coordination with new census data, municipalities must redraw their voting districts based on socioeconomic, ethnic and population changes. When Albany County finished its redistricting process in December 2002, critics cried out that the plan unfairly carved up minority communities by combining portions of Albany’s Arbor Hill neighborhood with parts of Loudonville and the Town of Colonie. Judge Homer agreed.

“[T]he two communities share virtually nothing in common,” Homer wrote in his decision. “[T]hey are governed by different municipalities, they are policed by different departments . . . and community and youth sports teams are separately operated. The children attend different public schools. Loudonville is predominantly white and affluent. The adjoined northeastern Albany is not.”

“This is not about black or white, it’s about wrong versus right,” said Aaron Mair, president of Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens. “These people have made a conscious choice to steal the votes and the rights of communities of color and people of other communities, and what this ruling does is restore the justice back to the people.”

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and Arbor Hill Concerned Citizens Neighborhood Group filed the lawsuit with legal assistance from the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights in Washington, D.C.

The county legislature sought to maintain the three minority-majority districts despite census evidence that the county’s percentage of minority voters increased from 1990 to 2000. During that time, the county’s black population increased from 8.2 percent to 10.7 percent of the total, while the county’s Hispanic population increased to 3.1 percent from 1.8 percent. Despite the increased minority population countywide to nearly 14 percent, the county’s redistricting plan sought to keep minority-majority districts at 7.7 percent.

Rather than creating a fourth minority-majority voting district from within the city of Albany, the legislature sought to increase the percentage of minority voters in the three existing minority-dominated districts within the City of Albany and spread the expanding minority populations into surrounding suburban districts.

Expanding these Democrat-controlled districts into neighboring suburban districts like Bethlehem and Loudonville was a way for the majority to dilute Republican power within the legislature, said Albany County Minority Leader John Graziano (R-Cohoes).

“This is city Democrats declaring war on the suburbs,” Graziano told Metroland shortly before the redistricting plan was unveiled in December. “They have fragmented complete towns.”

Albany County Majority Leader Frank J. Commisso (D-Albany), Albany County Democratic Chairwoman Betty Barnette, Albany County Attorney Michael Lynch, and Sean Ward (D-Green Island), who chairs the county’s legislative redistricting committee, did not return calls for comment.

In his decision, the judge pointed to census data indicating that minorities in Albany County “continue to lag behind in virtually all socioeconomic categories,” and stated that minorities have “generally been excluded for candidacy for county offices except in minority-majority districts.” The county’s maps would present an irreparable harm by denying minorities opportunity for equal representation, wrote the judge, and he issued an injunction on the elections and the maps redrawn.

Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the state board of elections, said Homer’s decision presents a major roadblock to those collecting petitions in preparation for this fall’s elections.

“It’s an unfortunate thing that [the decision] comes at this particular time,” Daghlian said. “It throws that whole calendar into oblivion. It’s like the court kind of took over, and now it will have to answer questions as to what to do with the old petitions and if there is a need for new ones.”

But Mair said any inconveniences created by Homer’s decision are necessary.

“You cannot cloak racism with a message of urgency,” said Mair. “The judge’s decision says the civil rights and the rights of the people hold prime over the process and mechanisms of the people who are trying to defraud them of their rights. People come before process. People come before institution.”

—Travis Durfee

The Truth Is Out There
And the Bush administration has yet to explain to the American public why it misrepresented Iraq’s nuclear capabilities

They may have finally found the smoking gun that nails the culprit responsible for the Iraq war. Unfortunately, the incriminating evidence wasn’t left in one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces, but rather in Vice President Dick Cheney’s office.

Former Ambassador Joseph C. Wilson publicly revealed over the weekend that he was the mysterious envoy whom the CIA, under pressure from Cheney, sent to Niger to investigate a document—now known to be a crude forgery—that allegedly showed Iraq was trying to acquire enriched uranium that might be used to build a nuclear bomb. Wilson found no basis for the story, and nobody else has either.

What is startling in Wilson’s account, however, is that the CIA, the State Department, the National Security Council and the vice president’s office were all informed that the Niger-Iraq connection was phony. No one in the chain of command disputed that this “evidence” of Iraq’s revised nuclear weapons program was a hoax.

Yet, nearly a year after Wilson reported back the facts to Cheney and the U.S. security apparatus, Bush, in his 2003 State of the Union speech, invoked the fraudulent Iraq-Africa uranium connection as a major justification for rushing the nation to war: “The British government has learned that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant quantities of uranium in Africa.” What the president did not say was that the British were relying on their intelligence white paper, which was based on the same false information that Wilson and the U.S. ambassador to Niger had already debunked. “That information was erroneous, and they knew about it well ahead of both the publication of the British white paper and the president’s State of the Union address,” Wilson said Sunday on Meet the Press.

Although a British Parliament report released Monday exonerated the Blair government of deliberate distortion to justify invading Iraq, it urged the foreign secretary to come clean as to when British officials were first told that the Iraq-Niger allegation was based on forged documents. The report noted: “It is very odd indeed” that the British government has still not come up with any other evidence to support its contention about an Iraq-Niger connection.

Nor has the U.S. administration told its public why it ignored the disclaimers from its own intelligence sources. In order to believe that our president was not lying to us, we must believe that this information did not find its way through Cheney’s office to the Oval Office.

In media interviews, Wilson said it was the vice president’s questioning that pushed the CIA to try to find a credible Iraqi nuclear threat after that agency had determined there wasn’t one. “I have little choice but to conclude that some of the intelligence related to Iraq’s nuclear weapons program was twisted to exaggerate the Iraqi threat,” Wilson wrote in an op-ed article in Sunday’s New York Times. “A legitimate argument can be made that we went to war under false pretenses.”

In a Washington Post interview, Wilson added, “It really comes down to the administration misrepresenting the facts on an issue that was a fundamental justification for going to war. It begs the question, what else are they lying about?” Those are the carefully chosen words of a 23-year career diplomat who, as the top U.S. official in Baghdad in 1990, was praised by then- President George H.W. Bush for his role as the last American to confront Hussein face-to-face after the dictator invaded Kuwait. In a cable to Baghdad, the president told Wilson: “What you are doing day in and day out under the most trying conditions is truly inspiring. Keep fighting the good fight.”

As Wilson observed wryly, “I guess he didn’t realize that one of these days I would carry that fight against his son’s administration.” And that fight remains the good fight. This is not some minor dispute over a footnote to history but rather raises the possibility of one of the most egregious misrepresentations by a U.S. administration. What could be more cynical and impeachable than fabricating a threat of rogue nations or terrorists acquiring nuclear weapons and using that to sell a war?

“There is no greater threat that we face as a nation,” Wilson told NBC, “than the threat of weapons of mass destruction in the hands of nonstate actors or international terrorists. And if we’ve prosecuted a war for reasons other than that, using weapons of mass destruction as cover for that, then I think we’ve done a great disservice to the weapons-of-mass-destruction threat.”

The world is outraged at this pattern of lies used to justify the Iraq invasion, but the U.S. public still seems numb to the dangers of government by deceit.

Indeed, Nixon speechwriter William Safire this week in his column channeled the voice of his former boss to reassure Republicans that the public easily could be conned through the next election.

Perhaps, and far be it for me to lecture either Safire or a reincarnated Nixon as to the ease of deceiving the electorate, but as we learned from the Nixon disgrace, lies have a way of unraveling, and the truth will out, even if it’s after the next election.

—Robert Scheer

You Call This Reform?
Concerned citizens and advocacy groups blast New York state plan to implement federal election reform for lacking specificity and diverse representation

As the deadline looms for compliance with a federal elections-reform mandate—and the $250 million expected to help New York carry out the changes—citizens and civic groups aired their grievances about the plan to revamp the state’s elections systems at a public hearing this week.

The Help America Vote Act, passed shortly after the presidential elections debacle of 2000, requires states to update and standardize their elections systems. In order to receive their share of the $3 billion the federal government allotted to help states comply with HAVA, individual states must create statewide voter-registration databases and easier-to-read ballot instructions in multiple languages, update polling equipment, and make polling places more accessible to people with disabilities.

In order to receive the federal funds, states must make matching-fund contributions and submit their plans for compliance by the end of the federal fiscal year, Sept. 30.

State elections officials praised the work of the task force appointed to ensure New York compliance with HAVA when it released its plan for implementation late last month. But critics at Tuesday’s (June 8) public hearing, the first of three, said the state’s plan as it exists contains “substantive deficiencies” and was crafted by a “flawed process.”

“While the plan reiterates HAVA’s requirements and frequently speaks laudably of New York state’s commitment to comply with the same,” said Jeremy Creelan of the Brennan Center for Justice, “the plan includes few details about how New York’s state and local elections officials will implement these requirements and improve our elections process.”

Creelan spoke as a member of the ad hoc NYS Citizens Coalition on HAVA Implementation, which issued a scathing 16-page critique of the task force’s plan. The lack of specificity and direction to which Creelan alluded is apparent in the task force’s recommendations to county elections officers regarding an anti-fraud mandate requiring new voters to provide identification.

HAVA requires first-time voters and mail registrants to provide a form of identification, preferably a driver’s license. But the NYS Citizens Coalition points out that the requirement disproportionately affects New York voters based on geography and income. For example, says the coalition’s report, only 53 percent of those under 18 possess a driver’s license in New York City, compared with 93 percent outside of the city.

The task force stated that other acceptable forms of identification may include a current utility bill, bank statement, government check, paycheck or other government document, but the citizens coalition listed two dozen other possible forms of identification it believes voters should be able to use, including electronic benefits cards, public-housing rent statements and student IDs.

“The plan needs to be clear on the issue of voter identification,” said Rachel Leon, also with the NYS Citizens Coalition. “If you leave these decisions up to the counties, you’re heading for disaster and you’re heading to disenfranchise voters.”

Lee Daghlian, spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said that the plan intentionally lacked of specifics in certain areas.

“This plan will not be specific in certain places because it’s impossible to know the answers yet,” Daghlian said. “It takes a lot more time to work these issues out and be specific. We were as specific as possible in those areas that we had answers to, and in the other areas we left some wiggle room.”

The task force also was criticized for its perceived political bias. Aimee Allaud, a taskforce member and elections specialist with the League of Women Voters of New York state, said the process “has been flawed since its inception.”

“[T]he composition of the taskforce has not been representative of the diverse population of New York state,” Allaud said. “Although the federal statute specifies that stakeholders and other citizens be included, only two members of the taskforce qualify as ‘stakeholders’ or ‘other citizens.’ ”

Allaud compared New York’s process to that currently employed in California, a state that developed a 24-member citizens advisory committee to influence the state’s compliance with HAVA. California’s citizen’s committee included three advocates for persons with disabilities, six representatives from minority populations, five from labor unions and six public-policy advocates. New York’s 19-member task force includes one public-policy advocate and one advocate for the disabled.

Matthew Barkley, an advocate for people living with disabilities with the Syracuse-based Advocacy Resources Information Services Education, was concerned that the taskforce has not gone far enough to seek opinions from the disabled community.

“A big part of this reform is to make voting easier for people with disabilities, and ironically, they’ve been poorly represented on the task force,” Barkley said.

Daghlian said the HAVA task force comprised a group as diverse and broad as possible given the time frame in which compliance was required.

“The number of people on the task force was what we thought manageable,” Daghlian said. “We’ve included members of the disabled community, we included people like the League of Women Voters. We felt that 19 or 20 members was big enough to get the job done and not have it get bogged down and take so long.”

The HAVA task force’s plan can be viewed at the state Board of Elections Web site, Public comments can be delivered to the members of the task force at two more public-comment hearings, today (Thursday, July 10) in New York City and on July 17 in Buffalo. The state board will accept written comments until July 23.

—By Travis Durfee

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