hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


Editorial November 2021



Redistricting reform that fails by design


Sometimes a flawed effort at political reform is still better than no reform at all. And as recently as a few months ago, some of us hoped that would be the case with New York’s new Independent Redistricting Commission.

But as summer has turned to fall and next year’s deadlines for redrawing New York’s political maps draw closer, it has become clear that the new commission is nothing short of a travesty.
As a story in this issue details, the commission is now in the midst of staging public hearings around the state on its proposals for redrawing the New York’s congressional and legislative district lines.

But instead of one set of proposals, the commission has two: one crafted by its Democratic members, the other by its Republicans. And no one really expects either plan to become a reality, given that the Legislature holds veto power over any plan the commission puts forth. So what is the point of this charade?

Until this year, New York’s political district lines were routinely redrawn every decade in a secretive process overseen by its legislative leaders. The result was gerrymandered districts that favored the majority party in each chamber of the Legislature – and that protected congressional and legislative incumbents of both parties.

Consequently, competitive elections in New York have been rare. Most districts are drawn to give either Republicans or Democrats a clear advantage. And once in office, nearly all incumbents serve until they retire or die.

Government reformers have argued for ages that New York’s voters would be better served by an open, nonpartisan process. If the map making were less focused on helping incumbents choose their favorite voters, the reformers predicted, more voters would enjoy real choices in competitive elections. And lawmakers in competitive districts would have a stronger incentive to chart a moderate course and seek out compromises that could attract crossover votes in the next election.

There was a moment about a decade ago, amid public disgust after a series of Albany corruption scandals, when New York’s then-new governor, Andrew Cuomo, and many legislators pledged to support nonpartisan redistricting. They soon reneged, but to save face they offered voters the chance to enact a 2014 constitutional amendment to reform redistricting. The voters said yes.
The result is the Independent Redistricting Commission. Alas, the commission was designed for failure, and now we’re watching it fail.

Despite its name, the commission is hardly independent. Eight of its 10 members are appointed in equal number by the Democratic and Republican leaders of the two legislative chambers, and those eight appoint the remaining two. With effectively five members chosen by each party, the natural result is a partisan stalemate – as with this fall’s competing sets of maps.

Even on the issue of transparency, the commission has mainly been a flop. The maps it has produced are of such poor quality that it’s all but impossible to tell which towns, let alone streets, would fall on one side or the other of district lines. Most of the supporting documentation for the maps is contained in electronic files that can’t be opened on the average home computer.
There’s still a compelling case to be made for nonpartisan redistricting. Other states have adopted it and are seeing results. But New York’s new redistricting process shouldn’t be confused with the real deal.


November 2021 political cartoon


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