Rochester, NY (March 15, 2012) -- Not long ago, this publication stated, quite casually, that Cuomo would not dare to veto the partisan, incumbent-protecting legislative districts proposed for the 2012 election. Despite his repeated insistence that he would veto these lines, Cuomo is increasingly hinting that there is a simple reality that cannot be avoided: petitions need to be passed later this month. Without approved legislative districts, New York’s state legislative and Congressional campaigns could be thrown into complete disarray.
In attempting to salvage some semblance of reform from this outcome, Cuomo is trumpeting the one concession he might have been able to win from this process: a commitment by the legislature to pass an amendment to the state constitution that would transfer redistricting responsibilities to a bi-partisan commission. The Cuomo talking points go like this: faced with a non-negotiable reality in 2012, the governor opted to ensure this would be the last time the legislature could engage in Gerrymandering. Future districts would be free of political intrigue and New Yorkers will, supposedly, be better for it.
But note the description of the redistricting commission: “bipartisan.” Bipartisan means it will contain Democrats and Republicans. So, while it is unlikely such a commission will overtly favor Democrats over Republicans (or vice versa), it does make it highly likely that the commission will favor incumbents over challengers and will favor established party preferences over other considerations. In other words, as long as Democrats and Republicans have some common interests (and make no mistake, they do), the bipartisan commission will still be fully capable of protecting those interests.
Note also that the proposed “reform” would also continue to give the legislature final voting authority over the maps. That means any proposed lines would still have to be acceptable to the very people who have a vested interest in districts that are not competitive. This “reform” proposal may reduce some egregious Gerrymandering, but it will not significantly reduce the role of partisan, incumbency-minded pols.
Is there an alternative?
Lost among the debate is the larger question of what alternatives exist to our current system. The media and many voters seem to take for granted that politicians have to be responsible for redistricting. To some extent, this is true. That is, the lines that shape legislative districts must be re-drawn to be consistent with the principle of “one person, one vote” (meaning they must have virtually identically-sized populations), and the lines must be specified by law. In that sense, redistricting requires legislative action.
But the bigger question is this: does redistricting require legislative expertise? Do pols know something about legislative districts that would make them better judges of how those districts should look? In a republic, where democracy occurs through representation rather than by direct participation by citizens, it is assumed that elected officials will act on the best interests of their constituents -- or else they risk not being re-elected. On matters of policy, this is fairly straightforward: countless elected officials have lost office because they voted “the wrong way” -- either on a single, prominent issue or a series of issues.
But is it ever plausible to think that voters would turn out their elected officials based on their endorsement of a particular political map? Possibly, but it hardly seems likely. That being the case, there is then a critical accountability gap in our representative system: elected officials can redraw lines virtually at will without having to be realistically concerned about electoral consequences.
A Jury of Our Peers?
If politicians do not draw districts, then who does? Consider this: currently, random groups of citizens play a significant role in government by determining who lives or who dies (in some states) and who is deprived of their freedom and who is not. Juries may not always get it right (see OJ Simpson, Casey Anthony), but it is equally clear that elected bodies are also prone to errors (see debt-ceiling debate in 2011 and passage of the soon-to-be unconstitutional Defense of Marriage Act). If American civilization has survived the occasional runaway jury, it can certainly survive having “juries” draw political districts.
Would such groups have the ability to draw maps? Definitely. Computer software has made map-drawing incredibly easy. The use enters some potential towns or areas and a map can be instantly drawn that identifies the voting age population of that district. Many news outlets across the country made such tools available to readers so they could draw their “own” districts and compare them to the ones generated by the pols.
An End to Politics in Redistricting?
Make no mistake -- it is neither possible, nor desirable, to completely rid redistricting of political considerations. That is, one should not believe that there is some group of people who are pure of heart, with no political or personal agendas that might influence their decisions. Furthermore, one should not hope that such a group could exist: these lines are meant to reflect the lived reality of our various communities. We want our legislative districts to be drawn by people who are, for lack of a better term, “real people.” Real people have partisan interests, policy agendas and selfish motives. It would be silly and naive to think that there is some group free of such thoughts and motivations.
Here is where a jury approach would represent an improvement over the current system. Currently, lines are drawn, and voted on, by elected officials who are all either Democrats or Republicans. And they are not merely registrants of those parties, they are long-term leaders in their parties. Consequently, they cannot easily separate their own political interests from those of their local and state party organizations. Who is, therefore, not represented by these pols? Independents, less-dedicated (moderate) members of the parties and members of third parties. Rest assured that while the Assembly and Senate will never lift a finger to consider the interests of Green Party or Libertarian party members, a citizens redistricting committee (jury) would at least have the potential of including such people on it, or at least having citizens who believe that such groups deserve a fair shake in the political system.
How Could It Work?
Here is a simple formula for setting up some redistricting juries: First, use rolls of registered voters to identify a random sample of voters in each county to attend a local redistricting caucus. There, they would have access to software and representatives from the local Board of Elections to help understand their task. Second, have each county caucus draw potential districts for their county only. For counties that are populous, these residents would have the best sense of what a “reasonable” division of the local landscape would be. For more rural counties -- which would likely be contained within one district (along with other areas), the caucus will have the task of prioritizing the neighboring areas to determine which of those neighboring areas residents feel the closest sense of community. For example, residents of Wayne County might prioritize Ontario County over Monroe County, feeling that their interests would be better-respected by someone representing those two counties rather than Wayne and Monroe.
Finally, the county caucuses -- or a subsample of them -- would assemble (either in person or by teleconference) to piece together their districts and priorities. The final map could have an approval mechanism that requires at least some share of each county to support the final plan.
Redistricting is not difficult or even that complicated. Letting elected officials determine policy is what representative government is all about; letting those same representatives determine the rules of the game tilts a bit toward oligarchy.
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