Institute Forum

Summary: Redistricting Reform: Visions for the Future in New York State February 9, 2010

How Should Legislative Lines Be Drawn for New York Voters?

The continuing shift in New York State’s population toward the Downstate region, and chronic weakness in the Upstate economy, may combine to create the “further marginalization of Upstate” after this year’s census and the next legislative redistricting.

For more:

Audio (Full)

Video: Gerald Benjamin
Video: William Parment
Video: Daniel Burling
Video: Jeffrey Wice

Video: First Question-and-Answer session

Video: Blair Horner
Blair Horner's slide presentation

Video: Final Question-and-Answer session

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Such concern was one theme to emerge from a Feb. 9 forum at the Rockefeller Institute. The event was co-sponsored by the Institute and the League of Women Voters of New York State in honor of the League's 90th anniversary.

Gerald Benjamin, a political scientist and associate vice president for regional engagement at the State University of New York at New Paltz, opened the forum by analyzing the role of legislative redistricting in shaping public policy in New York and other states. Benjamin described the state's current political agenda as “disproportionately driven by downstate population concentrations” — a trend he warned could lead to “further marginalization” of Upstate unless that region's economy revives and attracts more people.

Benjamin and other speakers at the forum — Redistricting Reform: Visions for the Future in New York State — addressed how that shift is likely to play out in a redistricting process that critics have charged is unfairly driven by incumbent politicians' interests in holding on to power. As several speakers noted, district boundaries have previously been drawn to maximize the number of Assembly districts downstate — presumably to ensure more Democratic votes in a body controlled by that party — and the number of Senate districts upstate — ensuring more votes for Republicans, who had controlled that body.

Blair Horner, legislative director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, was the last speaker at the forum, but panelists preceding him referenced the pictures they knew he would show. Horner's slides depicted what happened after the 2000 U.S. Census. NYPIRG, a government watchdog group, then gave tongue-in-cheek “Salvador Dali/Pablo Picasso Awards” to the districts that were the most artistically drawn — with the ultimate intention, Horner said, of saving incumbent legislators' seats by ensuring their districts were filled with registered voters identified as members of the incumbents' political parties. The results included a district shaped like what Horner called “Abraham Lincoln on a vacuum cleaner” and another, presumably created for a Republican's benefit, that wrapped around but did not include a largely Democratic core. (See the links above right for Horner's slide presentation.)

Horner called the process “clearly political,” and several other panelists at the event agreed. As Benjamin noted, there is a perception, rooted in reality, that the process is rife with “blatant self-dealing.”

Daniel J. Burling, a Republican member of the Democratic-controlled state Assembly, called previous redistricting efforts “a horrendous political process“ that he predicted would not improve much this time around. He recounted how the town that was home to his own business was removed from his district in the last redrawing of lines, and predicted Republicans would not fare well in the upcoming battle over voting boundaries.

Jeffrey Wice, special counsel to state Senator Martin Malave Dilan Sr., said Senate Democrats — now in the majority for the first time since the 1960s — are seeking “a much fairer, transparent, deliberative and more inclusive process.” The process starts with an accurate population count, something New York historically has not had, he said. While responses to Census questionairres average 55 percent to 60 percent nationally, in New York they are often much lower — as low as 35 percent, Wice said.

State Assemblyman William Parment, an upstate Democrat who had a hand in redistricting after past Census counts, provided details of the rules and court decisions that can require legislators to create oddly shaped district boundaries. Those rules include maintaining similar population size among districts; being able to split cities but not townships; and mandates to create and maintain districts, in some cases, where members of minority groups make up the majority of voters. Meeting those requirements, which come under federal Justice Department scrutiny, is more important to legislators than bolstering a political party's chances at the polls, he said.

Parment argued against having an independent commission in charge of redistricting, as NYPIRG and others have called for. It's the legislators, he said, who know their communities.

Benjamin quipped that in New York, Democrats could keep the redistricting process fair, but still end up the winners — given the simple demographics of the state's voters. Of New York's 11.6 million registered voters, 5.5 million are Democrats and 2.9 million are Republicans, with another 2.9 million officially aligned with smaller parties or no party, according to figures presented by Horner.

“Why not be for fairness, since you're going to win under fairness? And in addition, fairness might admit an additional increment of competition and an additional increment of accountability,” Benjamin said. “They can behave in a fashion that embraces reform and still win.”


ABOUT THE ROCKEFELLER INSTITUTE OF GOVERNMENT

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, conducts fiscal and programmatic research on American state and local governments. It works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies nationally and in New York, and draws on the State University’s rich intellectual resources and on networks of public policy academic experts throughout the country.