New lines are drawn after every U.S. Census and typically reflect the political power structure of the state legislature, bolstering sitting majorities. As Karen DeWitt reports, the topic has been the elephant in the room during much of this year. Gov Andrew Cuomo has repeated threats to veto any lines that are gerrymandered and drawn in a partisan manner.
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Lawmakers need to complete new legislative and congressional district lines in order to comply with federal census changes by early 2012. In the past, the majority party in each house - Republicans in the Senate, and Democrats in the Assembly - have drawn the districts to help boost their parties’ power in each house of the legislature. That practice has been criticized as gerrymandering and has led to some unusually shaped districts that resemble ink blots more than cohesive groups of voters.
The issue is of particular importance to Republicans in the Senate, who hold the majority in that house by just one vote, says Dick Dadey, with the reform group Citizens Union. “This is life and death for the Senate Republicans,” Dadey said.
Dadey’s group, along with former New York City Mayor Ed Koch, have been pressing lawmakers to draw fair district lines that benefit voters, not politicians. In fact virtually all GOP Senators, as well as many Democrats, signed a pledge to Koch during the 2010 elections that they would draw nonpartisan lines this time.
The manipulation of the districts may be a factor in the GOP’s continued power, despite demographic trends that have led to fewer enrolled Republicans in the state. Steve Greenberg, with Siena College’s polling center, says the 495 of New York residents are registered Democrats, 25% are enrolled in the Republican Party, and 24% are independents or members of another political party.
“The only real path that Senate Republicans have to maintaining their majority into 2013 is for them to draw their own lines,” said Greenberg.
Senate Republicans have said they do support nonpartisan lines, and are seeking an amendment to the state’s constitution. But changing the constitution takes years, and would mean that the nonpartisan lines would not be in place until 2022, a decade from now.
Sue Lerner, with Common Cause, whose group presented its own version of what non partisan lines would look like, admits that because of changing demographics, their Senate lines favor the Democrats. But she says strong candidates of either party can overcome those disadvantages.
Further complicating matters, Governor Cuomo has threatened for months to veto any district lines that are not drawn up in a non partisan manner by an independent commission. The governor explained his position earlier this year.
“I will veto the lines that are drawn,” said Cuomo. “I believe it should be done by an independent commission.” Cuomo, says a veto, though, would place the outcome in the hands of a judge, and there’s no telling what the judge will ultimately decide. “I think an independent commission is actually better for them than a veto, which would just be chaotic,” he said.
Greenberg, with Siena College, says that puts Cuomo in a challenging political position. “The governor has certainly shown his ability to dance,” said Greenberg. “I don’t think he has locked himself into a position on reapportionment that he cannot get out of.”
Meanwhile, the Joint Legislative Task Force on Redistricting has continued to hold meetings and public hearings despite the governor’s warnings. Senate Co-Chair Michael Nozzolio says under the state’s constitution, it’s their job to try to draw the lines. “While everyone has been jousting on those issues, we have conducted 14 hearings,” said Nozzolio.
And Assembly Co-Chair Jack McEneny says the governor should see the task force’s proposals before he judges them. “I believe that governors should read legislation before they decide whether they sign it or veto it,” said McEneny.
That legislation, and the task force’s proposed maps, are not expected to be presented to the public until some time in January.