Friday, September 26, 2014

When Is Reform Not Reform?

When it's self-serving, for one.

The history of redistricting in NYS goes back a hundred years and more and is rife with lawsuits. The rules are simple: Every ten years, the state may look at the census and revise its legislative districts based on population shifts. The reasons are simple: No one part of the state should have significant sway over any other parts of the state. If population is essentially similar from district to district, that should eliminate power plays. The reality, of course, is far from simple. This is New York!

Like most of the nation, New York has a bizarrely high return of incumbents to office, one that simple statistics would suggest is practically impossible. There are a handful of reasons for this, including name recognition and ability to raise funds, but certainly one reason is the drawing of district lines to favor certain parties. In a state with a clear upstate-downstate divide, that becomes a litigious issue when one party feels that the other is unfairly favored.

The state legislature has always had the power to establish districts. In the past, it has established an advisory commission but has retained the power to thumbs-up or thumbs-down any suggestions from that body. Former NYC Mayor Koch led the charge for independent redistricting via his NY UPrising group. He asked legislators to sign a pledge vowing that they would support such an initiative, and the results may be seen here. Being Ed Koch, he called the refuseniks "Enemies of Reform." It's an interesting list!

Fast forward to the current ballot proposal. It passed the Assembly and the Senate, and now it is in the hands of the voters, because such a change must be an amendment to the state constitution. It reads as follows (the word "independent" has been removed, as it clearly is not independent in any sense of that word). I did the boldfacing:

The proposed amendment to sections 4 and 5 and addition of new section 5-b to Article 3 of the State Constitution revises the redistricting procedure for state legislative and congressional districts. The proposed amendment establishes a redistricting commission every 10 years beginning in 2020, with two members appointed by each of the four legislative leaders and two members selected by the eight legislative appointees; prohibits legislators and other elected officials from serving as commissioners; establishes principles to be used in creating districts; requires the commission to hold public hearings on proposed redistricting plans; subjects the commission’s redistricting plan to legislative enactment; provides that the legislature may only amend the redistricting plan according to the established principles if the commission’s plan is rejected twice by the legislature; provides for expedited court review of a challenged redistricting plan; and provides for funding and bipartisan staff to work for the commission. Shall the proposed amendment be approved?

The folks who are urging us to vote "yes" include the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union. They've gotten rid of their original language that claimed the amendment was "not perfect" and are going whole-hog for redistricting.

But the plan clearly violates at least part of Common Cause's redistricting principles, the part about "disclosure of potential conflicts of interest," because if the committee is established by the legislative leaders and appointees, bias is already built in. Yes, we can no longer assign Nozzolio (R) and McEneny (D) to be part of the commission, but is that the reform that really matters? I would posit that the current plan again allows legislators to choose their voters, and that like so many good ideas in NYS, it has been edited and manipulated to maintain the status quo while looking all pretty and new.

For the best overall history of redistricting in NY, including an explanation of the role of prisons, see Ballotpedia.

People urging "yes" say that Proposition 1 is a step in the right direction. I think it is a step in the same direction. We still have time to do this right. Vote no.

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