"Give Voters a Voice in Redistricting"

Commentary by Professor Richard Briffault

Published Feb. 24, 2012 in the Times Union

By Richard Briffault

The redistricting plans for the state Legislature designed by its own leaders set a new low in the sordid history of gerrymandering in New York.
Cobbled together behind closed doors in total secrecy, the district lines would fragment neighborhoods and sprawl across counties and cities, in disregard of local concerns and communities. To entrench themselves in office, the majority party in each chamber created these districts to avoid competition and force incumbents of the minority party to run against each other.
In an especially brazen move, the Senate leaders want to create an additional district and place it upstate, even though upstate has been losing population. The objective is to enable the upstate-based Republican majority to cling to power.
Worst of all, the redistricting task force has yet to produce any plan at all for New York's congressional districts, even though the primary election for those seats is just a few months away. Like gerrymandering, this too is incumbent-protective, as without new lines challengers are handicapped from even beginning their campaigns.
It is tempting to focus on the outrageous specifics of the Legislature's actions in order to correct the worst redistricting abuses. But what the proposed plans tell New Yorkers is simple. It's that the Legislature cannot be trusted.
We need to take redistricting out of the hands of the Legislature and give it to an independent body, governed by standards designed to control the ability of incumbents and parties in power to protect themselves from challenges.
Achieving permanent reform to do just that is under discussion. A constitutional amendment could create an independent redistricting commission. That commission would have to operate openly. Subject to real deadlines, it would have to present its plans early, giving the public time to react and promoting electoral competition by giving challengers more time to campaign.
A constitutional amendment could impose rules that would limit the ability of the majority parties in each house to run roughshod over the minority parties. Even if the Legislature is given an important role in the redistricting process, a constitutional amendment creating an independent body and redistricting standards would be an improvement over a system in which redistricting serves as an incumbent entrenchment device.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly threatened to veto unfair districting lines. But we need to learn from the experience of this year's redistricting process, and the similar processes of past decades. New Yorkers should insist not only on having this year's gerrymandered lines corrected, but also on having the process reformed for the future. Any approval of a better districting plan for 2012 should be tied to the Legislature's approval of a constitutional amendment, which could then be submitted to the voters for approval.
The central purpose of elections is to have the voters pick their representatives. Instead, our so-called "representatives" pick their voters. Independent redistricting can help us return to competitive elections and legislators accountable to the voters.
Richard Briffault teaches at Columbia University Law School and is vice chair of the Citizens Union board of directors.