“In many aspects, the American public is ill informed,” said City College professor David Diaz. “The media shies away from that kind of content. It’s complicated and it’s seen as dull.”
The content that Diaz, who teaches media and politics, is referencing deals with redistricting in New York State. Not necessarily a sexy issue if you pay attention to the local television news and the daily newspapers, but an important issue, redistricting and gerrymandering have been under the political radar of citizens for decades.
Since 1790, the United States has conducted a census to record population changes and shifts from region to region. Each state in the union has their own process of creating congressional and legislative districts. Under laws like the Voting Rights Act, creating compact and adjoining districts are the goal, but that hasn’t been the way of New York State.
Whether dominated by Democrats or Republicans, New York’s political districts change to ensure victory for incumbents and weaken potential challengers.
According a study by the New York Public Interest and Research Group (NYPIRG) and the League of Women Voters, from 1980 to 2008, 3,000 state legislative general elections were held and only 39 challengers were successful in their quest to defeat incumbents. In 2004, of the 62 State Senate districts, 27 were drawn in order to fit as many Democrats as possible into districts that had a Democratic enrollment advantage of 40,000 or more. Each Senate district has roughly 300,000 constituents.
The two organizations believe that redistricting is the cause for these overwhelmingly incumbent-friendly results.
“It’s a very cynical process, which both major parties have participated in,” said Diaz. “And it’s also known as a major incumbent protection insurance agency. In many cases, the districts are just an abomination, in that there’s no common thread. There are all kinds of hieroglyphic shapes to the district.”
Factor in things like the Republicans having control of the State Senate for four decades despite Democrats outnumbering Republicans by a two to one margin and it explains the voice of those who want to change how the political game is played.
The NYPIRG-League of Women Voters study says that an independent redistricting commission is needed to “create fair legislative districts in New York State and to ensure that the state’s districts adhere to the principle of ‘one person, one vote.’”
However, none of this can take place if the voters aren’t informed of redistricting being a problem–something that Blair Horner of NYPIRG understands and is planning to end.”
“Obviously, we’re a small not-for-profit, but one of the things we talked about when releasing the report is NYPIRG and the League of Women Voters creating a speaker bureau,” Horner said. “We have volunteers and staff scheduling meetings across the state with rotary clubs, civic groups, etc., and go over the analysis in the report. It’s one of those issues that come up once every 10 years, but our plan is to, as best as we can, come out and educate people and write more reports and convince legislators.”
Both state gubernatorial candidates have come out against the practices of gerrymandering, but Horner remains cautious. “We tried with [George] Pataki in 2002 and we tried with [Mario] Cuomo in 1992. The governor is really the wild card in all of this.”
There’s a problem, however, with asking for redistricting reform. Black, Latino and other ethnic minorities in the state might want to exercise some power of their own. While many value democracy, there are just as many who value turning the tables and making the other eat what they ate. Some say it’s all part of the political process and the political game. Diaz believes that it can lead to disaster.
“I can understand what they’re saying because the reality is that this game if often played to the detriment of the minority population,” stated Diaz. “At the same time, perpetuating systems like that has a way of turning against you. What happens if, for instance, if Republicans took over power in the House and the Senate [in November], which isn’t very likely? What if the guy who’s running for governor of New York as a Republican [Carl Paladino] wins? Redistricting is in their hands. They’ll end up maximizing white districts and marginalizing Black and Latino districts.
“We would once again see the sword being turned on the former victims who were using it under ‘it’s our time to do it,’” said Diaz.
The AmNews will keep an eye on redistricting reform as it gains traction.