Comparing Three Redistricting Bills

Three bills have been introduced in the NYS Senate seeking to reform the redistricting process in NYS. What follows is my analysis of each bill, pointing out the major differences and assessing the chances of each to be passed into law.

On May 4 S1614A (Valesky, et al) was approved out of the Elections Committee to the Finance Committee where it currently awaits action. S7881 and S7882 were both introduced on May 24 by Senator Dilan.

One of the major distinguishing characteristics of the three bills is how the redistricting commission is formed and who can serve on it.

The Valesky bill creates a two-step process for forming a redistricting commission. First, an 8-member Nominations Committee is created with each of the four leaders of the Legislature along with the Governor, Attorney General, Comptroller and Chief Judge of the Court of Appeals getting to nominate one member.

Then the nominating committee is charged with identifying a pool of forty (40) persons out of whom the Legislative leaders would choose eleven (11) to serve on a redistricting commission. None of the 11 may be sitting elected officials.

Both S7881 and S7882 would convert the existing Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment into a Legislative Redistricting Commission. How they do so and how the members are chosen is what differentiates the two bills. S7881 establishes a 12-member commission with 8 of the positions to be filled by sitting legislators. S7882 creates a 9-member commission none of whom may be current office holders.

What’s going on here?

The NYS Constitution clearly places the responsibility for redistricting with the State Legislature. Ultimately, however, whether put together by a commission or the existing task force, the results must be approved by the Legislature and the Governor. Thus, the make-up of any new commission will likely have a strong bearing on whether the Legislature will approve their work.

By creating a commission two-thirds of whom are sitting legislatures who have been appointed by the legislative leaders (2 each by the majority and minority leaders), presumably S7881 comes closest to meeting the test that both satisfies the current constitution and is likely to produce a result that will be passed and signed.

By creating a commission with no office holders among its members S1614A and S7882 create a potential for having the commission’s work voted down by the Legislature. Each bill has a procedure for remedying such situations, but that possibility lays the groundwork for public dissatisfaction.

How else do the bills differ?

With regard to population deviation, S7881 and S7882 adhere to the federal standard that legislative districts may vary by as much as 10 percent in size. S1614A would impose a one percent deviation, which is the standard for Congressional districts.

Recognizing that the smaller the size of the district the harder is will be to create districts that are contiguous, compact and protect “communities of interest,” Senator Dilan’s bills wisely avoid the 1 percent hurdle.

Another way that the Dilan bills differ is that they resolve a long-standing issue concerning how prisoners are counted. Currently prisoners are counted as residing in the counties where the prisons are located, thus giving an advantage to those rural counties. The Dilan bills remedy this situation by stating “no person shall be deemed to gain or lose a residence by reason of conviction/incarceration.” The Valesky bill does not make that change.

Finally the Dilan bills would protect incumbents by requiring that new districts not place two sitting legislators in the same district. This provision is meant to prevent the practice by the majority parties of knocking off incumbents in the minority party by placing two in the same district. That provision is absent from the Valesky bill.

Otherwise the criteria for drawing up districts are virtually identical. Each seeks to achieve compactness and to avoid dividing counties and other political jurisdictions in the process of creating legislative districts.

The Valesky bill goes the furthest in trying to create a non-partisan commission. It probably has gone too far to win final approval of both houses. S7881 has the best chance of being passed because it populates the 12-member commission with eight legislators. Yet that bill will undoubtedly be opposed the good government groups as failing to pass the independent smell test. S7881 allows for four non-legislators, but that may not be enough to be labeled “independent.”

If the sitting legislators want to win the respect of the good government community and go before the voters this fall able to say that it has reformed the redistricting process, then it will need to pass S7882 (or a modified version of S7882).

Will anything be done? Only 15 percent of the people who have taken the poll thus far on the Empire Page are optimistic that reform will go through in 2010.

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