Our view: Independent redistricting is way to go

May 11, 2010

Sen. David Valesky, D-Oneida, has long supported the creation of an independent commission to handle redistricting following the completion of the 2010 Census. Last week, the Senate Investigations and Government Operations Committee approved his legislation to do just that.

Now it's up to the rest of the state Legislature to make sure the plan is carried out.

That will be a challenge. Several days after Valesky's bill advanced, leaders of both houses said that they would not back the proposal if it comes to the floor. Senate Democratic leader John Sampson and Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver both said that they would improve the current process in which the majorities redraw election district lines in their own house, but not give up the power to an independent, nonpartisan commission.

Gov. David Paterson, however, came down on the side of what's right. He told it like it is, saying that districts are redrawn not just for politics, but also for punishment.

"It was really just the whims of senior members and antagonisms toward individuals," Paterson told the audience at "Albany On the Record," a public forum conducted by various civic organizations. The governor urged his fellow Democrats to embrace an independent, apolitical process to redraw districts.

Various versions of this plan have been floating around Albany for at least five years, and none has ever made it out of committee. Valesky's bill has been sent to the Elections Committee - Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-Rome, is a member - and if approved there is likely to move to the Finance Committee before going to the full Senate. A similar bill, sponsored by Assemblyman Michael N. Gianaris, D-Queens, is stuck in committee.

Contact Election Committee members and tell them to move this bill forward. Creating an independent commission to redraw district lines is critical to good government. In the past, district lines have been drawn by the Legislature through a process known as "gerrymandering," which discourages competitive elections because the lines are drawn to favor a particular party. That protects incumbents. According to statistics from the New York Public Interest Research Group, only 25 of the 212 legislative districts - 11 percent - have close enough party enrollments that could allow frequent competitive elections.

Valesky's bill would change that by establishing a citizen reapportionment commission to draw maps for congressional and state legislative districts. The commission would propose district boundaries - compact, equal in population and contiguous - and submit them to the Legislature for approval, in accordance with the state Constitution. The commission's configuration would not abridge or deny minority voting rights, and would align with local boundaries and community character to ensure the even-handed and non-partisan drawing of lines.

This is where we have to go. Such redistricting would encourage competitive elections and fair representation - a foundation of our democracy. Lawmakers who want to do the right thing should make sure this bill becomes law.