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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.