Reapportionment - reform falls short - A cure may be worse than the disease

Daily News, The (Batavia, NY) - Tuesday, February 5, 2013

A recent state Senate vote clears the way for a referendum on a proposed constitutional amendment meant to make New York's legislative redistricting less partisan. 

The current system for redrawing legislative districts after the national census every 10 years has long been criticized for creating gerrymandered, largely uncompetitive districts for the Assembly and Senate designed to protect incumbents and maintain the majority party control of either chamber rather than putting voter interests first. 

Prodded by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, the Senate and Assembly have now twice agreed as required by the state constitution to put before the voters in 2014 a referendum on a constitutional amendment that would take reapportionment out of lawmakers' hands and give the responsibility to what is supposed to be a 10-member independent commission, beginning with redistricting plans for 2022. The cumbersome proposal falls short on several counts, though. 

The presumed nonpolitical or independent nature of the commission is doubtful. Each of the top Democratic and Republican legislative leaders in the Senate and Assembly would appoint two members, who are certain to protect their party's interests in any redistricting plan. 

Those eight members would select the remaining two appointees, neither of whom could have been a member of the two major parties for at least five years to give the appearance of nonpartisanship. 

The absence of party affiliation, though, does not mean they will be any less partisan in their outlook. It is not hard to imagine the wheeling and dealing behind the scenes to win agreement on both appointees. So expect an evenly divided panel with strong party loyalties, a recipe for gridlock. 

Approving a plan can also be a sticky problem. In a convoluted voting process, a simple majority of seven members is not enough to approve a reapportionment plan. The composition of the votes will make a difference depending on which party controls the Assembly and Senate. If they are from the same party, then the majority has to include at least one member appointed by each of the four legislative leaders. 

However, the plan was developed before the Independent Democratic Conference came to power in rotating control of the Senate with Republicans. A future commission's vote could depend on which party occupies the temporary Senate presidency on any given day or week, if the IDC is still here 10 years from now. 

Commission approval sends the proposed redistricting to the Legislature. There will be some restrictions on how much they can change a plan, but the final say on redistricting will rest where it is now and should remain. As flawed as the current system is, redistricting belongs with the elected legislators, who are closest to the voters.