Coalition Issue Brief: Redistricting

Elections are supposed to offer voters a choice in their representation. Unfortunately, the winners of New York State legislative elections are typically chosen in non-competitive elections. In fact, New York's Legislature has one of the highest rates of incumbency in the nation.

April 23, 2007

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The Legislature and the Governor should pass meaningful redistricting reform that includes the creation of an independent redistricting commission and the development of well-defined guidelines to ensure fair and effective representation for all citizens of the state.

BACKGROUND ACTION

Elections are supposed to offer voters a choice in their representation. Unfortunately, the winners of New York State legislative elections are typically chosen in non-competitive elections. In fact, New York's Legislature has one of the highest rates of incumbency in the nation.

Under the current system of redistricting required after each census, the majority party leaders of both state legislative houses essentially determine how district lines will be drawn, allowing them to manipulate district lines to suit their political aims. They essentially choose their voters in an attempt to shield themselves from competitive races well before the voters have a voice in deciding who represents them. This has helped to create a body of legislators that is not responsive to their constituents' concerns and districts that divide communities and are often grossly unequal in size.

To address these concerns, legislation should be passed that would create an independent redistricting commission to draft the state legislative and congressional political boundaries for the 2012 elections and beyond. New York should adopt a system where redistricting guidelines ensure racial and language minorities fair and effective representation and have neither the purpose nor the effect of diluting racial minority voting strength. Districts should be compact and contiguous, with greater population equality, and should not be drawn to either favor or oppose a candidate or political party. Commissioners should be prohibited from creating districts based upon voter's party affiliations or other information that could serve to disenfranchise voters.

HOW HAS THE CURRENT PROCESS UNDERMINED OUR REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY?

Partisan Redistricting Distorts Legislative Representation. If district lines were consistently drawn to benefit constituents or communities of interest, one would expect that Senate and Assembly districts would share many common boundaries. Instead, the lines for each body look radically different. The current process has allowed communities to be divided to ensure that legislators are re-elected to office every two years.

Redistricting Decisions Undermine the Concept of "One Person, One Vote." Only 29 of 212 legislative districts (14 percent) are within one percent of the "ideal size." Indeed, New York's legislative districts can be dramatically different in size, pushing the threshold of the legally permissible. A recent analysis of district populations found that State Assembly districts ranged in size from 121,111 people to 133,038 people, and State Senate districts ranged in size from 290,925 people to 320,851 people. Those districts with larger populations are effectively denied the same level of representation as those with far fewer residents.

Redistricting Decisions Contribute to New York State's Lack of Competitive Elections. New York State elections are incredibly one-sided. New York's incumbent return rate is one of the highest in the nation, hovering close to 95%. How district lines are drawn contributes to this phenomenon. Indeed, incumbents can draw district lines in order to injure their most potent challengers, even within the same party. For example, after Hakeem Jeffries won 41% of the Reform NY Day 2000 primary vote against 20-year Assemblyman Roger Green, the district lines were redrawn, leaving Jeffries' residence just slightly outside of Green's new district. When districts are manipulated to avoid electoral challenges, the voters are ultimately denied a real choice on Election Day.

Redistricting Decisions Play a Critical Role in Maintaining the Legislature's Decades-Long Status Quo. In the last 30 years, New York has undergone significant changes. Yet, when it comes to our legislature, not much has changed. Since the Democrats took control of the Assembly in the 1970s - and redrew the maps in 1980 - the majority parties in each house have maintained their dominance, and critical issues have consistently failed to be addressed.

RECOMMENDATION

We urge the Governor, the Senate and Assembly to develop and debate meaningful redistricting reform that includes the following key elements:

  • An independent redistricting commission that shifts redistricting power away from the elected officials who stand to benefit from how lines are drawn to a body charged with drawing district lines in a fair and sensible manner;
  • Appointment of commissioners from a pool of diverse and qualified candidates that are representative of both genders and the state's racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity, with additional procedures to ensure that the commission itself is also reflective of the state's voters;
  • The development and use of fair and well-defined guidelines that limit the influence of partisan interests during the process, protect against the manipulationof district lines to favor or oppose any incumbent officeholder or candidate for office, and ensure fair and effective representation for all citizens of the state;
  • A fair and transparent reapportionment process that provides for ample public hearings and opportunities for public comment and full access to data, maps, criteria, software used and proposed plans; and
  • A mechanism for passage that encourages the approval of the independent redistricting commission's plan.