Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Dance of the Districts

Political Panel Praises
Partisan Redistricting,
Solons Are Discomfited
At Koch Remonstrance

The reapportionment dance took a few steps forward and backward today as LATFOR (The New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research) held a public hearing in lower Manhattan. The committee has been traveling around the state to hear from the public, but that is no indication that they will respond to the complaints that have been received from academics, good government groups and potential candidates.

The first grievance, which has been expressed by speakers who caught the road show before it arrived in New York City, was that LATFOR should not exist all, but that an independent redistricting commission should be appointed, rather than leaving the task to the assembly of incumbents now conducting the hearings and charged with preparing a plan for the approval of the Legislature, the body that will be affected by the plan.

The reformers want to prevent self-serving partisan districting, which fulfills the desires of a political party at the expense of non-members of that party. They want nonpartisan districting, either this year by law or permanently by Constitutional amendment. The incumbents' idea of avoiding one-party favoritism is bi-partisan districting, which serves the needs of both the Democratic and Republican parties, at the expense of challengers and independents of all stripes.

The star witness at the hearing was former Mayor Edward I. Koch, co-founder of New York Uprising, which is a coalition of former public officials favoring independent non-political districting. Click here to read Mayor Koch's testimony, an informative review of current state of efforts to draw fair lines.

Under the Constitution of the United States, a census of the population is taken every ten years, and the results determine the apportionment of seats in Congress. Because of New York State's comparatively slow growth, it will lose two seats as a result of the 2010 census. The usual political tradition when New York loses two seats has been to take one upstate Republican seat and one downstate Democratic seat. The situation has been complicated since 2010 by the departure of three members of Congress from New York State because of sexual misconduct, in three cases different from each other and all involving unrequited desires.

The custom in New York has been for the Democrats to draw Assembly district lines and the Republicans the Senate lines. For seats in Congress, the parties had to reach agreement on district boundaries. Because of changing demographics and social attitudes, the Republican hold on the Senate has becoming ever more tenuous. A law adopted when the Senate was in Democratic hands changed the districts that would benefit from the head count of inmates from the upstate counties were they were incarcerated, providing employment to local residents, to the downstate counties where they lived while committing the crimes, largely, felonies that resulted in their being sent upstate.

Some people want the Democrats to win both houses, so responsibility for whatever happens or does not happen can be placed on one party. Others prefer a divided legislature, so that conservatives as well as liberals will be heard. A number of players publicly prefer domination by their own party, but their private opinion is another matter. Common sense tells us that moderate government is more likely to be achieved under diverse leadership than when the legislature is under the control of one party. A political system dominated by either party tends to reduce the importance of general elections and increase the effect of party primaries, where the more extreme members of each party have proportionately greater influence, in part because independents are forbidden to vote.

Redistricting will be an important issue in the months to come, and much will said on the subject. The argument is not ideological, the left against the right, the spenders against the savers, or liberals against social conservatives. The issue here is one of equity and fairness, of expressing the wishes of the people, as opposed to those in both parties who would manipulate the system, deny ballot access to challengers, preserve incumbents by any means available, and place individual legislators under the thrall of the legislative leadership, where any expression of autonomy is punished.

The New York State legislature, periodically derided as the most dysfunctional in the United States, has earned its ill repute, not only through acts of dishonesty by members of both houses, some of which have resulted in prison sentences, but by an arbitrary system of rules and protective walls around the leadership, so that although the great majority of the members are honest, there is precious little they can accomplish without the consent of men who, to put it politely, are more responsive to special interests and individual desires, often paid for by political contributions.

To allow the leaders to retain the power to choose their followers by drawing their districts condemns the backbenchers to little more authority than their constituents, who may decennially be moved like cattle from one district to another to serve the political interests of those whose lack of responsibility and desire for re-election have helped give rise to the state's now acute financial problems.

Do not take this commentary as indicating that any particular legislator is better or worse than any other. Some considered paragons of virtue may never have been subject to temptation. Others usually reviled are not only smarter than most others but are better politicians. And when people elected to high office as reformers are found to have several screws loose which prevent positive interaction with other people, the distinction between intellect and insanity becomes difficult to find.

But regardless of their intellect, ability, integrity or state of rage, all public officials should run in honestly drawn districts, equal in size, compact and contiguous, and linking communities by interest. Political boundaries should not be perpetrated on the public by self-serving incumbents, who have systematically manipulated the electoral system to serve their personal needs at the expense of the public interest in honest government.

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