Observing legislative redistricting in New York this year is a little like watching a performance of Hamlet in modern dress. You've seen Shakespeare's tragedy before, more than once. It looks different this time, but the plot's the same. You know for sure that it's not going to come out well.
LATFOR, the Legislature-controlled body in charge of redistricting, is in the midst of giving us the same bipartisan gerrymander of legislative districts that we've gotten for the last thirty years. Majority Democrats design Assembly Districts. Majority Republicans do the Senate. Each signs off on the other. Partisan majorities and their incumbent members are protected for the next decade.
At least Jack McEneny of Albany, the senior Assembly Democrat in the LATFOR leadership, has the grace to speak frankly about the process. Partisanship is inherent in politics, McEneny says, and incumbent protection assures that good, experienced people are returned to office.
This is far from the Orwellian double-speak offered by LATFOR's Senate Republican head, Michael Nozzolio of Seneca County. He insists that what the Legislature is up to this year is different, neutral and nonpartisan — and somehow expects to be believed.
There are indeed some differences this time. Data and redistricting software are widely available. So in anticipation of the release of LATFOR's work, Common Cause — with the help of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz and others — was able to drawn alternative maps.
The partisan character of the Legislature's work has not just been asserted, it's been clearly demonstrated in an analysis by the Center for Urban Research. So there is a basis for judgment and comparison. It's clear that competitive districts can be drawn. They can meet federal one person, one vote and Voting Rights Act requirements and take account of the state's regional and demographic communities of interest — and result in fairer elections.
Hearings and public discussion on state and congressional maps leading to compromises and revisions should antecede finalization of any new redistricting process. But this is New York, near last in the nation in congressional redistricting, and time is running out.
At this stage, a better outcome can arise in two ways: by leveraging Gov. Andrew Cuomo's promise to veto excessively gerrymandered maps; or as a result of the work of a court-appointed special master to oversee the process.
This time, the Common Cause reform maps can help the governor or the special master extract the best outcome still possible. For next time and thereafter, we must pass a state constitutional amendment placing redistricting beyond the reach of change by the ordinary state legislative process. We need to entirely replace what are an outdated, arcane, substantially invalid constitutional provisions.
A constitutional amendment must provide for an independent commission with an odd number of members (5 to 13) appointed by a diversity of authorities exclusively from a pool of interested citizens. Lobbyists, elected officials and those directly or indirectly dependent upon them for employment could not serve. Members would reflect the political and demographic diversity of the state.
They would have a clear timetable and employ clear criteria, including in order of priority: compliance with federal requirements, observance of the integrity of the state's regions — defined by its natural and built environment — and recognition within regions of social and demographic communities of interest.
Use of data reflecting partisanship or incumbent residency in designing districts would be prohibited. Finally, the Commission's decisions would not be subject to revision by the Legislature.
Common Cause/NY has shown that there is no practical impediment to producing fair maps, only a political one. Ironically, if we had adopted the 1967 constitution, the last constitution drafted by a convention in New York, we'd have been redistricting the legislature by commission for each of the last 40 years.
We would be watching a different play entirely, likely one with a happier outcome.