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Reform Groups Split Over Redistricting

NYS Capitol building in Albany

Reform groups are split over the merits of a November ballot item to change the way new legislative and congressional districts are drawn in New York.

Some groups see the amendment as an opportunity to finally end rampant gerrymandering of Senate and Assembly districts in New York.  But others fear it would just solidify legislative control of a process that allows legislative leaders to draw districts that suit their own political interests.

Opponents of the amendment, including Common Cause and the New York Public Interest Research Group, recently scored a win, when a State Supreme Court judge ruled that the amendment could not use the word “independent” when describing the new commission which would form to draw the lines.

Susan Lerner is with Common Cause.

“We definitely consider this a victory,” Lerner said.

Under the new process, a panel to draw the districts would be made up of 10 members, eight appointed directly by the legislative leaders. The remaining two would be named by the legislature’s appointees. The legislature could ultimately override the panel’s work, if it is not approved by the Senate and Assembly after two tries. The legislature would then be free to go back to drawing its own district lines, with some restrictions.

Lerner says the ruling by Judge Patrick McGrath bolsters her group’s argument that the ballot amendment is not really reform and should be defeated.

“This validates our position,” Lerner said. “The voters should be wary, and should reject this as fake reform.”

But supporters of the amendment say while the amendment may not be perfect, it’s the one chance to end a corrupt process that has led to all sorts of bizarrely misshapen districts, drawn to help incumbent lawmakers win reelection, and to keep majority parties in power.

Dick Dadey, with Citizens Union, says even though the judge will not allow the commission to be described as independent in the ballot language, he still sees the glass as half-full.  He says the ruling includes some “major affirmations” of the amendment’s description.

“Nothing in the judge’s decision changes the fact that power is being taken away from legislators and given back to New Yorkers,” said Dadey, who says the amendment will “ensure that no lines, no districts are drawn for political advantage any more.”

And Dadey says the judge agrees that the plan would “safeguard against one party dominance in redistricting” decisions, and that could lead to a “fair and impartial process.” Overall, Dadey says the ballot proposition is better than the alternative, to keep the status quo.

“We will no longer see the partisan scheming that has long defined this process,” Dadey said.

The League of Women Voters also backs the amendment.

Both houses of the legislature voted twice to approve the amendment, as required under the state’s constitution, and Governor Cuomo signed the bill, at the time calling it “historic.”

But so far, the governor and lawmakers have not actively campaigned for the amendment’s approval.

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