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Henry J. Stern

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Beware the Gerrymander

Posted: 08/04/11 04:02 PM ET

Writing a blog has many satisfactions. One can share information and opinions with thousands of people who have elected to receive them. One can affect the public's view of issues. On some occasions, one can publish material previously unknown or unconnected to the larger universe of public policy issues.

A blog also has its frustrations. The blogger can draw conclusions and make proposals, in a loud or soft voice, but there is no assurance that anyone will do what he recommends. In most cases, there is a reason that officials will not do what you suggest. The most common reason is their own self-interest.

It is an ancient truism that the first law of nature is self-preservation. The thought was expressed elegantly by Andrew Marvell in 1675 in England in a metaphysical poem, "Hodge's Vision from the Monument""

"Self-preservation, nature's first great law,
All the creatures, except man, doth awe."

BTW, the gifted Marvell (1621-1678) is the author of another iconic couplet, well known for centuries:

"The grave's a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace."

The importance of self-preservation was doubtless in the minds of our ancestors, the cavepeople, whether they expressed that view in their speech or not. When one watches nature programs on public television, and sees the way animals treat, and eat, each other, the priority of survival for any living creature is evident.

The relevance of these observations to today's politics arises when we consider the decennial issue of redistricting. The Constitution of the United States (Art. I, Sec. 2) requires the enumeration of the population by means of a census to be taken every ten years (the first was in 1790), and the assignment of seats in the House of Representatives based on roughly equal districts. It is left to the state legislatures to draw the lines, either as a body, through a committee, or by taking recommendations from a group they appoint for that purpose, be it judicial, academic, nonpartisan or bipartisan.

New York State is historically noted for egregious gerrymandering. For roughly the last half century, the Assembly has been districted to elect Democrats, whereas the Senate lines favor Republicans. The steady growth in allegiance to the Democrats and the relative depopulation of upstate has made it increasingly difficult to draw Senate lines to keep the Republican Senate majority.

In 2008, the Democrats actually gained a Senate majority because of the high vote for President Obama. They managed their majority so shamefully and corruptly that the Republicans narrowly regained control in 2010. During the campaign, all the Republicans promised in writing to support an independent redistricting commission in order to win the approval of Mayor Koch and an organization he and others formed called New York Uprising

After the Republican victory, owing in part to the use of the Koch pledge in their literature, they concluded that the independent commission they promised to support could not come into effect until the state Constitution was amended, an event that would not take place before 2013, at the earliest, and would not apply until the 2022 election. What happened, of course, was that once they had a majority, the Republicans repudiated their pledge, as it was no longer in their self-interest to honor it.

Governor Cuomo has repeatedly pledged to veto any districting plan that is not prepared by an independent commission. He does, however, leave himself some wiggle room by requiring that the plan be fair, reasonable and nonpartisan, without re-emphasizing the necessity for an independent commission.

To his credit, the governor has stated that he does not believe that the committee of state legislators charged with statutory authority to draw the lines, the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR), can see past their own personal and political interests and create district boundaries that are equitable. LATFOR has so far had two hearings upstate, with another scheduled tomorrow in Albany. Five hearings will be held in New York City in September, one in each borough (Queens - Sept. 7; Bronx - Sept. 8; Brooklyn - Sept. 20; Manhattan - Sept. 21; and Staten Island - Sept. 22). Their locations have not yet been announced.

If the governor vetoes a districting plan, it will be up to the legislature to sustain or override the veto. To override requires a two-thirds vote in each house, which means that both the Democratic and Republican leadership would have to agree on a plan. Enough legislators have signed the Koch pledge to sustain a Cuomo veto, but will they keep their word?

Another possible scenario is that, anticipating Governor Cuomo's veto, the legislature will avoid the political consequences of overriding the governor's honest and populist stance and instead stall as long as it can, perhaps until February 2012, before issuing its suggested lines.

The aim of this strategy would be for the legislature to make the case to the state or federal courts, which would be charged with drawing the lines in the event the state does not adopt any, that there would not be enough time before the April 24, 2012 primary date to come up with new lines, and thus there would be no alternative but to adopt the LATFOR lines.

To thwart this potential manipulation, Governor Cuomo should take Bill Samuels' suggestion and appoint a nonpartisan, independent commission now that would draw up equitable lines which the governor would be comfortable adopting. This commission's recommendations would not be binding, nor would they carry official weight, but they would be valuable if the redistricting battle winds up in the courts, and the judiciary needs a viable alternative to the LATFOR lines to consider in a short period of time.

Common Cause New York deserves praise for the substantial labor that it is currently performing to create their own set of lines, drawn up according to the principles commonly held by good government groups. Basic fairness requires that legislative districts be compact, contiguous, equal in population, reflect communities of interest, and not be stacked, packed, hacked or cracked, which are terms used to describing either stuffing members of one group into a district in order to control it, or breaking up natural concentrations of people to diminish their power to elect a member of their group.

It will be interesting to see how different Common Cause's lines will be, when they are completed in the coming months, from the ones LATFOR ultimately draws. Close examination of the differences are likely to reveal the partisan self-serving motives of the legislators.

There is still a possibility that the legislature will honor the pledge it made to Mayor Koch, the former mayors and governors who are part of New York Uprising, and Citizens Union, a leader in the struggle and the organizing force behind the ReShape New York coalition, of which New York Civic is a member, and hold a special session to appoint an independent commission in place of LATFOR. That is, however, highly unlikely as it would almost certainly frustrate the Senate Republicans's desire to maintain their majority, which they may lose unless President Obama's defeat in 2012 is as massive as his victory was in 2008.

There are many injustices in politics, such as the denial of ballot access to independent candidates; the use of technicalities in the election law to exclude legitimate candidates; the use of public resources by incumbents to promote their re-election, soliciting and securing campaign contributions from people and organizations candidates have assisted financially, usually with public funds; vacancies artfully created by timely resignations of incumbents, so the positions will be filled by special or midsummer elections with minimal voter turnout; and the prevention and suppression of primary elections through political or economic intimidation, not to mention old-fashioned voter fraud, such as multiple voting, and a variety of other 'dirty tricks.'

The struggle for clean elections and clean district lines are part of the effort to insure fair, open and honest elections so that the voters' choices will be respected. Unfortunately, insiders in the political system will often use every sort of chicanery to prevent a free election. In these contests, the insiders have a great deal at stake. It is their boodle, pelf and spoils that they are trying to preserve.

The voters have a right to choose their elected officials. The officials do not have a right to choose their voters, although in fact they try to do just that. Sometimes they even succeed. In New York State they usually do.

"Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty" was said by Wendell Phillips in 1852, in a speech to the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. That statement is still true today, and applies particularly to those who would tamper with the electoral process in order to gain private, personal or partisan preference.

The least one can expect in a competitive election is a map with clean district boundaries. Sadly, for far too many office holders, that is the last thing they want to see happen. We will watch closely for the next few months, looking out for attempts to manipulate the process. If the past is any indicator, machinations are likely to be attempted by those who hold legislative power. This is an early warning that there will be trickery afoot.

 

Follow Henry J. Stern on Twitter: www.twitter.com/nycivic