"WINK-WINK-WINK Silver-Cuomo-Skelos" -Bill Samuels on March 15, 2012 after a redistricting deal sends an incumbent protection plan constitutional amendment to the 2014 statewide election ballot.
Most local governments in New York state elect their governing bodies at-large, but many counties and cities and a small number of towns employ wards or districts, and therefore must redistrict decennially. Moreover, the growing diversity of their populations, combined with Federal Voting Rights Act requirements, has or will require many other localities to consider changing from at-large to district-based elections for their councils or boards. Absent a charter requirement to the contrary, local legislative redistricting is conducted at the discretion of the body itself. This raises the prospect that self-interested elected officials gerrymander to preserve their positions and assure continuation of partisan majorities. Constitutionally required independent redistricting at the local level, as at the state level, using neutral criteria, will enhance competition and accountability, and help assure continued public confidence in local government.
Currently, a requirement for neutral redistricting for localities and attendant criteria for local legislative redistricting is not established by the New York State Constitution. Since experience shows that local legislators themselves cannot be relied upon to act contrary to their own self interest or partisan interest, we need to establish a constitutional provision that requires general purpose governments that employ legislative districts now, or may employ them in the future, to utilize a fair, equitable, and neutral method to re-draw legislative districts.
The issue of fair redistricting is at the very root of a well functioning representative democracy. The selection of our representatives is best done in a way that maximizes their ability to represent us. Where districts are used, how district lines are drawn determines to a large degree where those lines are drawn. The lines themselves should work to ensure equal representation, and to group communities with common interests, not to advance reelection of incumbents, or to further the influence of one political party or another. The process affects the outcomes of redistricting, and the districts that are drawn have the potential to determine the outcome of elections. In order for fair and equitable representation to exist, neutral redistricting is a necessity.
The map below highlights one of the county legislative districts in Nassau County. The orange colored district has the type of shape that emerges from incumbent driven legislative redistricting at a local level.
Fair redistricting is at the very root of a well functioning representative democracy. The selection of our representatives is best done in a way that maximizes their ability to represent us. Where districts are used, how district lines are drawn determines to a large degree where those lines are drawn. The lines themselves should work to ensure equal representation, and to group communities with common interests, not to advance reelection of incumbents, or to further the influence of one political party or another. The process affects the outcomes of redistricting, and the districts that are drawn have the potential to determine the outcome of elections. In order for fair and equitable representation to exist, neutral redistricting is a necessity.
It is arguable that the process of redistricting is inherently political, and that therefore any attempt to make it truly independent is doomed to fail. In the absence of the ability, will or capacity to create a process of redistricting outside of the political process, the next best thing is a fair and balanced bi-partisan approach.
Every ten years, as per the Constitution of the United States, a census is taken, and the data is used to redraw legislative district lines of all kinds. The goal is to address the shifting population trends and create new districts of equal population, thereby ensuring equal representation. In principle, these districts should be as compact as possible, be contiguous, respect municipal and geographical boundaries wherever possible, respect communities of interest, and comply with the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, which is designed to assure fair minority representation. All places in the United States are subject to review under Section 2 of this federal law.
As with all redistricting; legislative control of the local redistricting process inevitably leads to less competitive districts, protection of incumbents, and the continuation of current legislative majorities. There has been a move in more recent years to use independent redistricting commissions to minimize local gerrymandering. The most notable example is the inclusion in the New York City charter adopted in 1989 of criteria for redistricting and provision that it be done decennially by a 15 person commission, with seven members appointed by the mayor, five by the majority and three by minority party members of the city council. (Chapter 2-A) Such a commission has redistricted the council three times.
Under the Ulster County Charter, adopted in 2006, a process is established to create a Commission on Reapportionment to re-draw the county legislative districts. The commission is comprised of 7 members. Two are chosen by the legislature’s majority leader, and two by the legislature’s minority leader. These 4 members then choose the remaining 3 members from a pool of interested candidates. The Ulster County Administrative Code states that the Commission is "to meet and evaluate existing legislative districts no later than 60 days after the necessary census data becomes available from the decennial federal census and reapportion (the districts) as necessary to meet established standards in state and federal law for equal and fair representation of all people in Ulster County, keeping districts compact and contiguous while taking also into account existing town, city, village and election district boundaries and defining geographic features but giving no consideration to providing advantage to one or another political party.” As a result of this process, Ulster County completed legislative redistricting, and on May 18th, 2011, the Legislature approved the plan. Shortly afterward, the County Executive signed it into law.
Dutchess County adopted a bi-partisan commission process for redistricting the county legislature by local law in 2009, but after the legislative majority changed from Democrat to Republican it abandoned this idea, returning the task to the legislature itself.
In another interesting county-level case of gerrymandering, less than a month after the release of 2010 census figures, Nassau County Republicans on April 26, 2011 unveiled a proposal for the 19 legislative districts that would move about 572,000 residents — 44 percent of the total — to new districts, put four incumbent Democrats into two districts, and split up much of the recognizable geography of Long Island, breaking the Five Towns, for example, into two Two-and-a-Half Town districts. This was done under an interpretation of the County Charter, which they say required them to make a temporary redistricting plan for the 2011 election in advance of the creation of a permanent plan, due in 2013. On August 30th, 2011 the New York State of Appeals Court threw out the plan, and the current districts were used in the 2011 election.
At the city level, voters in Newburgh this year adopted charter changes that abandoned a fully at-large system for electing the city council and replaced it with a mixed district and at-large system, with districting by a commission designed to be independent of the council.
In 2009, Suffolk County created an independent redistricting commission process to be used after the 2010 census. Unfortunately, county offiicials never followed through with the commission. Instead, the county reverted back to letting the county legislators redraw their own district lines.
While the Town Of Brookhaven's new independent redistricting commission developed a non-partisan map for town board districts, an incumbent protection plan replaced the commission's recommendation when the Town Board voted.
Currently, a requirement for neutral redistricting for localities, and attendant criteria for local legislative redistricting, are not established by the New York State Constitution. Since the local legislatures themselves cannot be relied upon to act contrary to their own self interests by restraining their own power, we need to establish a constitutional provision that requires general purpose governments to utilize a fair, equitable, and neutral method to re-draw legislative districts.
 Frank J. Macchiarola and Joseph G. Diaz . “The 1990 New York City Districting Commission: Renewed Opportunity For Participation In Local Government Or Race-Based Gerrymandering?” 14 Cardozo L. Rev. 1175 ( April, 1993) . Eric Lane “Redistricting: Redrawing Council Lines--The Charter and the Process” 8 City Law 49 (May / June, 2002).
Bill of rights for local governments.
Section 1. Effective local self-government and intergovernmental cooperation are purposes of the people of the state. In furtherance thereof, local governments shall have the following rights, powers, privileges and immunities in addition to those granted by other provisions of this constitution:
(a) Every local government, except a county wholly included within a city, shall have a legislative body elective by the people thereof. Every local government shall have power to adopt local laws as provided by this article.
(b) All officers of every local government whose election or appointment is not provided for by this constitution shall be elected by the people of the local government, or of some division thereof, or appointed by such officers of the local government as may be provided by law.