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Michael P. McDonald

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Redistricting Gratification, Delayed

Posted: 02/27/2012 8:50 pm

Editorial boards across New York have called upon Governor Cuomo to veto the gerrymandered districts likely to be adopted by the state legislature. At stake during redistricting are the political fortunes of the parties and their incumbents, often at the expense of sensible representation for communities.

The prospect of a veto is possible because Governor Cuomo ran on a platform that included reforming the arcane process of redistricting. But calls for a veto at this stage miss the real point of redistricting reform. A veto provides only short-term instant gratification to a long-term structural problem that will rear its ugly head repeatedly every decade. Relying on future governors to play veto whack-a-mole is not a viable reform strategy.

By wielding the heavy hammer of the veto the governor might bludgeon the legislature into producing a few more pleasing districts, but my experiences around the country suggest that a veto is likely to produce only marginally improved districts, creates substantial delays that can harm voters and, most importantly, furthers no real reforms of the redistricting process.

A bruising political battle in the midst of a redistricting that is already underway has never produced meaningful reforms that affect the lines immediately. Never. Politicians become too wrapped up in their own self-preservation to consider adopting such immediate reform. And even if this were not the reality, the Voting Rights Act requires federal review of all New York statewide election changes, which makes it impossible to reform the process in the limited remaining time available to draw new lines.

But such bad news may end up being the best thing that could happen to New York in the long run if the governor can use the current political wrangling over district lines to delay gratification and produce meaningful reform for next decade's redistricting and beyond.

What might such reform look like?

I support the creation of independent redistricting commissions that are removed from the legislature's self-interest, and I have worked with non-partisan groups, Democrats, and Republicans to promote this reform in other states. But in those other states, the reform path has been voter initiatives, since legislatures are not keen on relinquishing redistricting power. Voter initiative is not an option in New York, and therefore neither is a reasonable prospect of creating an entirely independent redistricting commission.

If reform occurs, it will likely take a shape similar to that in other states where the legislature must enact it. In states like Iowa, a commission draws districts according to a well-defined set of criteria, and forwards those plans to the legislature and governor for approval. In a state like Maine, a super-majority is required for adopting a plan. While not an ideal reform, the virtue of such a system is that party conflicts are handled through the political process rather than in the courts or by other extraordinary means, such as the recent high-profile impeachment of the Arizona redistricting commission chairperson by the Republican state government. Such reform should also include restrictions on partisan gerrymandering and improve transparency of the line-drawing process to allow citizens to critique the commission's lines and draw their own suggested maps.

Real redistricting reform can come to New York. However, the practical reality is that a protracted veto battle will be counter-productive to that goal. Such reform may fall short of reformers' initial expectations based on states with voter initiatives, but New York should take a step in the right direction if the opportunity presents itself.

 
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