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Commentary & Opinion

Blair Horner: A Look Ahead To November

Now that the lackluster 2014 legislative session is in the books, New York’s elected officials turn their attention to November.  The statewide offices of governor, comptroller, and attorney general are all up.  All 213 legislative seats and 27 Congressional House of Representatives are up for a vote.

In addition, New Yorkers will have three questions on the ballot.  New Yorkers will vote to approve a bond act which will allow the state to borrow up to $2 billion to purchase classroom technology, access to the Internet, and to upgrade some school structures.  A second question will allow lawmakers to have access to legislation electronically, instead of only in printed form.

But the third question will likely be the most contentious:  Changes in New York State’s process for drawing legislative district lines.  Every ten years, New York is constitutionally required to adjust its legislative districts to reflect changes in the state’s population.

For decades, New York has allowed its state legislators to draw the political boundaries for their own districts.  In 2012, Governor Cuomo agreed to a deal that allowed lawmakers to once again draw their own district lines, but with one caveat – changes in the way these lines were drawn in the future.

A new report, issued by the New York Public Interest Research Group and other reformers, documented how the 2013 deal undermined the democratic principle of “one person, one vote” by allowing legislative districts that vary substantially in population size.  The bedrock principle of “one person, one vote” holds that all Americans should have equal influence in electing their representatives.  The report argues that New York State allows “gerrymandered” districts with vast disparities in population size that, while technically legal, undermine democratic principles.

The report, Can The Plan:How The 2012 Redistricting Deal Denies New Yorkers Fair Representation And The Fundamentally Flawed Redistricting “Reform,” examined the populations of Assembly and Senate districts.  The report’s key findings include:

·         Only 29 of 212 legislative districts (14 percent) are within one percent of the “ideal size.”  In the Senate, district populations vary in population by over 27,000 people between the most and least populous districts, in the Assembly by over 10,000. 

·         The report also identified the most bizarrely drawn legislative districts.  Despite a state constitutional requirement that legislative districts must be “compact” and “contiguous,” the report identified districts that looked like a “splattered bug,” a “lobster claw,” a “crocodile,” and a “lightning bolt.”

While the districts may be humorous to look at and vary greatly in their population size, the impact has been devastating on our democracy.  The resulting unfairness in redistricting – coupled with an equally unfair campaign finance system – has created incumbency protection.  Only 55 incumbents have lost in the general elections held over the past thirty years.

Other states have population differences that would be a huge improvement if enacted in New York.  The state of Illinois has no population deviation at all.  The states of California, Washington and Wisconsin have legislative district population differences of less than 1% of the average.   

Unfortunately, under the so-called reform that the governor extracted as part of the redistricting agreement, the proposed constitutional amendment to change New York’s process will do nothing to reform the problem of unequal representation.  It ultimately leaves the legislature in charge and the other changes in the amendment are largely cosmetic.

The groups argued that New Yorkers should reject the constitutional amendment to change the redistricting process that is up for a vote this November.  Given that the next redistricting process begins in 2020, there is still time to get the reforms right.  Fake reforms should be rejected.

Blair Horner is the Legislative Director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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