The Best Chance for Election Reform

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff.

Any real reform of elections should include how maps get drawn – legislative district maps, that is.

You may have heard about how the U.S. Supreme Court just came down with a ruling that impacts that process of redrawing legislative maps, known as redistricting.

Does it matter to New York? It does, although it’s more of a wake-up call than anything else.

First, let’s recall that redistricting is the process of changing political boundaries – the districts within a state for those representing people in Congress and in the 50 state houses.

Federal law requires that a redistricting occur every 10 years, to reflect the shifts in population. State lawmakers usually control the process – as they do in New York. And so redistricting is enormously political. This process gave birth to the term “gerrymandering,” or manipulating district lines to benefit the party in power. This has long been a problem.

But in Texas, there was an additional wrinkle. Republicans took control of the Texas state house after the last redistricting was completed (following the 2000 U.S. Census). Instead of waiting until 2010 to carve up the Texas map, the GOP in Texas began the process immediately and recast the state’s congressional district lines. This early redistricting was challenged in the courts and the issue made it to the nation’s top court.

Last week, the nation’s Supreme Court largely supported the Texas’ redistricting, backing the idea that a turnover of party control in a state legislature can prompt a new redistricting process at any time.

So does this mean New York will see goofy district maps gone wild every two years instead of every ten? No. Democrats will certainly retain control of the Assembly after November . . . and Republicans in the Senate will likely keep their slim majority (although there is some doubt there).

Then what does a New Yorker hoping for election reform – and the end of Empire State “gerrymandering” – get out of this Supreme Court decision?

A message.

“(The Supreme Court ruling) makes it crystal clear that if you are waiting for the courts to do something else about this, you are Waiting for Godot,” said Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group, an organization lobbying for election reform.

Forget the courts, said Horner. The only game in town is the campaign trail – more specifically, the one being traveled by the three men running for governor in New York. And, Horner added, now is the time to get the candidates on board for redistricting reform.

There is no reason to expect that this issue will get traction in any of the elections for the 212 legislative seats up for grabs. We know a devil’s pact has been reached by Republicans who lead the Senate and Democrats in control of the Assembly to carve up the state so that the party in power stays in power.

That’s why you so rarely see any viable competition for those state legislative seats or the 29 congressional posts. Just look at the races in the Rochester region (if “race” is really what you want to call them). Few sitting legislators are even being challenged. Even those who are facing an opponent must not be worrying too much. In the 56th Senate District held by Republican Joe Robach, the Democratic Party is fielding a candidate, Willa Powell, a candidate that county Democratic officials told City Newspaper isn’t expected to beat Robach..

Quite a voter turnout pitch.

Reformers want the district line drawing to be removed from the grasp of legislators who make the maps for their own benefit and, instead, given to an independent, non-partisan commission. The best place for that change to occur appears to be the governor’s mansion.

Any new redistricting plan must get the approval of the governor. The district maps are submitted like a bill, which needs the governor’s signature.

And it’s during this election year – with an incumbent leaving – that the gubernatorial candidates could loudly proclaim they will force some change in the redistricting process.

What if the next governor were to demand that the next redistricting session be done by a non-partisan group, not the lawmakers? What if the gubernatorial candidates said that anything short a map produced by an independent commission would be vetoed? (Sure the state lawmakers could try to override a veto, but with a slim majority in the Senate, it would be unlikely – Horner said – that the house could secure the necessary two-thirds majority).

Now would be the time to put Eliot Spitzer, John Faso and Tom Suozzi on the spot. Voters who want to see real election reform could push the issue with the candidates.

A few months back another reform group, Common Cause, put the candidates on record. They either got a face-to-face speech (Suozzi) or a letter (Spitzer and Faso). And there are subtle differences in the positions when it comes to redistricting.

Suozzi plainly said he would veto any redistricting plan not done by an independent body.

Spitzer hasn’t gone that far, although he has said the preferable option is an independent redistricting commission.

Faso also didn’t say he’d put a veto pen behind the idea of a non-partisan commission. He did state that he would veto district lines that “smacks of partisan politics”. But, of course, “smacking of partisan politics” winds up being in the eye of the beholder.

This appears to be a promising start. At least they are all addressing the issue – and seem to have some level of disgust for the current process.

Let’s hope that forums and debates and journalists raise this redistricting question with the candidates further in the coming months. Once the next governor gets in office, history tells us that he will likely remain in power for at least two terms. So a subsequent election, with an incumbent facing a challenger, may even be less charged than this one is.

Any real election reformer should realize that the best chance for redistricting reform is now. Let’s hope the opportunity is not missed.