Opinion Editorial on Redistricting
Why the Maps Don’t Matter
A new electoral map drawn by a federal judge last week has turned up the heat on Albany’s once-a-decade legislative redistricting fight.
But while redistricting can be a matter of life and death for individual lawmakers, the exercise is of scant practical import to most New Yorkers.
It simply makes no real difference how the salami gets sliced — because the interests of the political machines have already been guaranteed.
It’s no accident that, as Citizens Union reported last year, 96 percent of incumbents in Albany won re-election between 1999 and 2010.
As CU notes, 35 incumbent lawmakers faced no opposition whatsoever, not even from minor parties, in the 2010 general election. (And besides those who died or quit voluntarily, more than a quarter who left office between 1999 and 2010 departed either in handcuffs or under an ethical cloud, rather than via the voting booth.)
How do the bosses stack the deck?
Gerrymandering — redrawing district lines to assure that incumbents keep their base — is certainly part of it.
But unless you’re among the lucky few to get the nod from party kingpins, you stand little chance of even making it on the ballot in the first place.
Incumbent lawmakers, after all, have written the laws to keep it that way.
Thus, challengers can be barred from running simply because of small errors on their candidate petitions. In special elections, voters aren’t even offered primaries — and in many districts, where one party (usually Democrats) dominates, that often means automatic victory for the party-picked nominee in the general election.
New York’s ballot-access laws “prevent many candidates, in particular less-funded candidates, from appearing on the ballot,” CU says. It calls this state’s laws “some of the most arcane in the country.”
Meanwhile, the dueling over new districts has been intense — as the parties (and incumbents) seek to protect their advantages.
Dems had hoped to redistrict Republicans, who hold a slim 32-29 majority in the state Senate, into “oblivion” — as then-leader Malcolm Smith once vowed to do; the GOP sought to boost its edge.
(Think Albany’s a mess now? Imagine it under one-party rule for a decade or more.)
As for new congressional districts, lawmakers were so knotted up — with infighting over issues like how to save Rep. Charlie Rangel’s seat, now that his Harlem district’s black population has shrunk — that a court had to appoint a special master, US Magistrate Roanne Mann, to come up with her own plan, which she did last week.
It well may be that no plan designed by the very pols who’d have to live with it will serve voters.
But real reform will have to go well beyond drawing new district lines — with reform of ballot-access laws being key.
Until it does, you might as well toss all the maps in the circular file.