Analysis: Redistricting, a Test of Democracy

The major political parties apparently have an unspoken agreement: don’t touch our guys and we won’t touch yours.

By Gabe Pressman
|  Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012  |  Updated 5:33 PM EDT
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Analysis: Redistricting, a Test of Democracy

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They are supposed to act as guardians of democracy.

But instead, the Republican and Democratic leaders in Albany seem to have an unspoken deal to betray democracy. Disregarding the pleas of reform groups to draw new lines for state Senate, Assembly and U.S. congressional districts based on principles of fairness and honesty, the politicians in control are once again working to protect incumbents.

If they get their way, most state lawmakers and members of Congress will retain their seats, with help they get from party bosses.

It’s a shameful situation. Reform groups, including Citizens Union, the League of Women Voters and Common Cause, are disgusted and should be. What is most galling is the major political parties apparently have an unspoken agreement: don’t touch our guys and we won’t touch yours.

It’s not a problem unique to New York. Americans for Redistricting Reform, a national group, notes that gerrymandering, the drawing of district lines for political gain, goes back to 1812.

This group suggests that independent commissions, not legislators, should create districts every 10 years based on census figures.

The reformers say that, over the years, those who gerrymander districts have based their decisions on three factors: race, partisanship or bipartisanship. In Albany this year, a kind of bipartisanship, perpetuating in office people of both parties, seems to have prevailed. And only the governor can keep it from happening.

Gov. Cuomo has threatened to veto the proposal of the bi-partisan legislative commission if it remains what he calls “hyperpartisan.” Civil rights leaders have said the proposed new maps don’t fairly represent blacks and Latinos. Hazel Dukes, president of the state NAACP, accuses the Republicans of having “just gone out for blood."

"If the governor doesn’t veto this," she told the New York Times, "I think our next step will have to be in the courts.”

But the courts could delay the process. Many judges are reluctant to intervene in what they regard as a legislative matter.

Susan Lerner of Common Cause told me that there is a clear danger of the party bosses establishing an incumbent protection program. “It’s pretty outrageous.” she said. “The antithesis of sound democratic principles.”

Cuomo has proposed that an independent commission decide on the new district lines. But having a presumably impartial group try to untangle this political problem may not work either. The high and mighty legislators may turn out to be just plain folks trying to hang on to their jobs.

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