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Redistricting Reform, for the Right Reasons

This week’s New York Times featured an editorial decrying the state’s redistricting practices, with an illuminating set of accompanying maps. It was an extremely thoughtful tandem, and we’ll dig into the details of why

  • Justin Levitt
November 13, 2009

This week’s New York Times featured an editorial decrying the state’s redistricting practices, with an illuminating set of accompanying maps. One of the best parts about the extremely thoughtful tandem: they focus on the right reasons for reform.

The piece talks about insiders’ ability to limit accountability by carving promising candidates out of their districts. It talks about the impulse to cut through otherwise cohesive communities (here, in Rochester) in order to seek partisan advantage. It talks about the damage done to equal representation when people in prison are used to pad the districts where the prisons are located, even though that’s not their legal residence and they get no representation there. That’s spot-on.

This is particularly valuable given the usual alternative, which starts and ends with how pretty a district looks. Though we all know you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, we seem to need continual reminders

For example, consider former Sen. Velella’s district (NY34, also right). The Times does a particular service here, because – precisely as the material indicates – the primary reason why this district is abusive is NOT the reason that’s most apparent on first blush. 

ny district 34 in 2000 and 2002

Most people look at the overall shape of this district and think something is awry, and many numerical measures feed that intuition. But part of the odd contours are caused by Long Island Sound, and the islands and waterways that don’t keep to neat and easy geometry. And most of the odd contours have to do with the fact that the bulk of the district is drawn around three other districts in the Bronx that give minorities an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice under the Voting Rights Act, and which make up the “hole” in the center of the district map. Much of the shape we think strange actually reflects values we support. 

In truth, the real problems with this district – the real reasons to want change – are the parts the Times highlights. First, there’s Rikers, in the tail of the district to the south, which adds almost 13,000 unrepresented nonresidents to the district, and gives a boost to all of the other district’s residents at the expense of everyone else in the state. 

And then there’s the curious little carve-out in the west (see bottom image to the right), slicing away the block around the house where Lorraine Coyle Koppell lived at the time. It’s hard to believe it’s a coincidence that Ms. Koppell got 46% of the vote against former Sen. Velella the year before the maps were drawn. You can see the map-drawers’ attention to detail best by comparing the districts in 2000 and 2002 (image right also): zoom in on the pushpin representing Ms. Koppell’s house. Nor is this sort of thing an anomaly: I’ve also blogged, with similar before-and-after maps, about the redistricting that notoriously lopped Barack Obama out of his district. And that’s just the most prominent example in a very large set.

These are exactly the sorts of problems that reform should be addressing. Big points to the Times for keeping their eye on what matters, rather than what first matters to the eye.