News Coverage on Redistricting

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A shallow line in the sand

Bill Hammond
Tuesday, March 13, 2012

 

The closer you look at Gov. Cuomo’s proposed gerrymandering deal with the Legislature, the worse it gets.
 
The high-stakes horse trade calls for Cuomo to sign off on blatantly partisan Assembly and Senate districts this year in exchange for the promise of reform beginning in 2022.
 
It was always going to be an ugly deal — not unlike letting a bank robber pull off one more job if he promises to go straight in the future.
 
Still, it was worth a shot. Had Cuomo leveraged his veto threat into an ironclad constitutional amendment coupled with tolerably decent maps for 2012, the tradeoff might well have been worthwhile.
 
But when details began to emerge Sunday night, it became clear that he fell short on both goals. When it came to giving up gerrymandering — a key weapon in Albany’s incumbency-protection arsenal — the Legislature did not budge nearly enough to constitute genuine reform.
 
Cuomo should answer that stonewalling by doing exactly what he promised in the first place: veto the lines.
 
The best part of the amendment is that it declares, flat out, that districts should not be drawn to advantage or disadvantage incumbents, particular candidates or political parties.
 
Beyond that, however, the amendment is deeply flawed.
 
First, it leaves too much control in the hands of legislators.
 
Their party leaders would directly or indirectly appoint all 10 members of the supposedly independent redistricting commission, and they would have final word on whether its proposed maps become law.
 
The only real procedural difference from the status quo is that sitting legislators would not directly draw the lines — although their children and business partners would be eligible — and that minority parties would have somewhat more say.
 
Still, incumbent politicians would rule the roost — and could all too easily gang up against voters for their mutual benefit.
 
Also, the amendment fails to require that all districts be roughly the same size — a necessity for upholding the principle of one person, one vote.
 
As things work now, Senate Republicans deliberately underpopulate districts in Republicans areas upstate while overpopulating them in Democrat-heavy New York City — thus giving the GOP a disproportionate share of seats. Democrats do much the same in the Assembly.
 
The amendment would let that obvious abuse continue, demanding only that mapmakers explain themselves in writing.
 
The proposal also missed the chance to repeal an arcane and archaic clause that calls for periodically adding new Senate seats — which Republicans have repeatedly exploited for partisan advantage.
 
Even if you think this loophole-riddled system would work, there’s no guarantee it would actually become law. It would have to be passed again next year — by a Legislature with a track record of breaking promises on this issue — and ratified by voters in a referendum.
 
But the final straw is the maps voters would be saddled with for the next decade. Prodded by Cuomo to make their lines “less hyperpartisan,” the Legislature put out revised maps yesterday that failed to meet even that rock-bottom standard.
 
You still had grotesque shapes like the 29th Senate District, which stretches from the South Bronx, through Harlem and across Central Park to Manhattan’s West Side — and looks something like the Starship Enterprise.
 
And you still had gross population disparities, with most upstate Senate district nearly 5% below the average and downstate districts 3% or 4% on the plus side.
 
To be sure, this deal — lousy as it is — may be the last chance for gerrymandering reform of any kind for generations to come. Good-government groups are bitterly divided over whether the deal is worth taking — with the Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters in support, and Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Research Group coming down against.
 
It’s sad to see well-intentioned people take shots at one another when the real villain is the reform-allergic Legislature.
 
Still, the opponents are right. Cuomo cannot sign this mess — not when his veto would throw redistricting into the courts. Not when those courts have already shown — in drawing congressional maps for lack of a plan from the Legislature — that they can do a far better and fairer job than lawmakers ever will.
 
Cuomo should take that deal — and live to fight for real reform another day.

 

 

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