Redistricting Reform May Not Be the Panacea Reformers Are Looking For

For years good government groups have blamed Albany’s dysfunctional government — to use the Brennan Center’s label — on the way the legislative district lines were drawn and have called for an independent commission to draw district lines.

They use the term Gerrymandering which has been around since 1812 when the governor of Massachusetts one Elbridge Gerry signed into law a bill that created district lines that benefited his party.

More recently gerrymandering was used by some Southern states to prevent minority voters from electing candidates of their choice which was effectively outlawed by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 which says that “states are prohibited from imposing any “voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure … to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.”

Every ten years after the Federal Census, all states are required to re-draw Congressional and Legislative district lines because there is a Federal Standard established in Baker v. Carr that Congressional districts be roughly equal in population.

The standard for Congressional districts is 1 percent. However the federal standard for state legislatures is only 10 percent.

After years of futilely bashing the NYS Legislature for drawing up districts that favored incumbents, the chances of reforming how district lines are drawn in 2010 is more real than ever before. As a result of the last year’s debacle in the State Senate, the failure of the Legislature to address major problems and pass on-time budgets, voices calling for reform of the redistricting process have been given a major boost by the entry of former NYC Mayor Ed Koch, who along with former Governor Mario Cuomo and other allies, has obtained a pledge from each of the leading announced gubernatorial candidates to support an independent redistricting commission.

Further, legislation that embodies the reformers vision of an independent redistricting plan has begun to move through the State Legislature.

S1614A/A5297A is designed to “create an independent redistricting commission…to end the offensive practice of partisan gerrymandering and create Congressional and state legislative districts that are cohesive and honestly drawn.” District lines would be drawn to be “compact, roughly equal in population and contiguous.” Districts would not “abridge or deny minority voting rights, nor favor or oppose any political party, incumbent or candidate for office. The districts would align with local boundaries and unite communities of interest.”

So we’ve gone from the theoretical world where reformers live to the legislative world were words have meanings. Therefore, let’s take a look at what people who study re-districting have learned from other states.

Michael P. McDonald, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote a summary of some research in a piece entitled “Legislative Redistricting” in Democracy in the States (Washington, D.C., 2008). McDonald points out that not only is redistricting reform difficult to get passed, but because those who favor it do so with different goals in mind, the results may not match the promise.

The key points to keep in mind are that the goals of reformers are often in conflict. For example, the goal of have districts that are both contiguous and compact may not square with the desire to not break up existing political boundaries and the goal of having districts that are within one percent of each other in population may not work when trying to achieve certain outcomes such as assuring that some districts have a majority minority population.

Another way to put it there is an inherent conflict between those who focus on process and those who focus on outcomes. By process we mean those who favor methods designed to prevent a bias in favor of one party or candidate. The process supporters want lines drawn according to “neutral” criteria. However, it is very difficult to pin down what they mean. They are in favor of “compact” districts, but how compact is compact and how can you tell if a district is “compact”?

By outcomes we mean those who want reform to produce certain results. In the past outcomes supporters focused on redistrict to protect minority voting rights, but in NYS that is not a problem. In New York the outcomes that supporters present as their rationale for supporting redistricting have to do with how the legislators once elected do their jobs.

If you look at reformers statements about redistricting you’ll see statements like these:

“Currently, the State Senate Republicans and the State Assembly Democrats are allowed to draw the lines for their respective house – ensuring their re-election in the process. This has created a body of legislators that is not responsive to their constituents’ concerns.” Common Cause

Of course this is outdated and facts that made the point obsolete. Because if the Senate Republicans were able to draw their district lines to guarantee that they retained a majority, how is that they lost their majority in 2008?

“How district lines are drawn has a dramatic effect on the lack of competitive elections. Few legislative districts have balanced enough party enrollments to allow competitive elections.” League of Women Voters

Given that the Democrats currently have a 2 to 1 enrollment advantage in New York, if enrollment equity is the criteria to be used, the next Legislature would have 211 Democrats and 0 Republicans.

“Legislative gerrymandering is the single biggest factor contributing to the dysfunction and chaos of New York State government.” Citizens Union

I believe that to be factually incorrect. The internal operating rules of the Legislature — not how the legislators are elected — is the single biggest factor contributing to dysfunction.

“Well-designed redistricting systems, in contrast, can help ensure that elected public servants actually serve their public.” Brennan Center of NYU Law School

That remains to be seen.

If legislative re-districting reform passes, here’s what you need to watch out for:

1. The commission will not be able to satisfy all the conflicting goals built into the law. To meet the 1% population equity standard, they will be forced to divide existing political jurisdictions perhaps even at the county level.
2. Compactness will also be a standard that will be extremely difficult to achieve, but they won’t be criticized for missing the target here because the target has no meaning.

Because the criteria are vague, some people will think a political miracle has been achieved when the commission reports their newly drawn maps. But here’s what they won’t achieve:

1. Competitive races. Competitive races are not primarily dependent on district lines. They are also a function of the state’s overall demographic makeup. So if the Democratic Party continues to have a 2 to 1 enrollment advantage, it is very likely that most district races will be one-sided even after redistricting. What makes races competitive are competitive candidates, overarching political trends and how independents vote.
2. Reforming how the Legislature functions. I’d be happy to wager any amount of money that if Sheldon Silver runs for re-election in 2012, he will be elected Speaker of the Assembly in January 2013 and he will have exactly the same powers he has today.
3. Albany will continue to appear chaotic; the legislature will continue to be labeled dysfunctional and the public will still think their own legislators are good people while everyone else in the Legislature are crooks.

The bottom line is that the evils of the current method of redistricting are really not as evil as the reformers make them out to be and the solution they offer is not as powerful a remedy as they hope it is.

Redistricting should be supported on process grounds – transparency and the like are worthy objectives in and of themselves, but those who think redistricting will achieve certain outcomes are blowing smoke up the public’s you know what.

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