Crooked Lines, Part 1: State's Redistricting Called Into Question
Every 10 years after the U.S. Census is taken, the boundaries of New York’s political districts are redrawn to reflect shifts in population. But the way those lines are drawn have raised eyebrows over the years. In part one of our series, NY1's Bobby Cuza examines why some say it’s the number one reform needed in Albany.
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Albany has been called the country's most dysfunctional legislature. Voters say they're fed up. Polls show a disapproval rating of about 75%. And yet, state lawmakers are practically invincible at the polls. This year, 188 state legislators are running for reelection; in the Sept. 14 primary, exactly four of them were defeated. Most didn't even face a challenger.
How is this possible?
One reason is the state's redistricting process. Every 10 years, after the Census, legislative districts must be redrawn to account for population changes. And the ones drawing the lines...are the legislators themselves. Specifically, the majority parties in each house of the legislature. And historically, they've manipulated the lines in ways that practically guarantee their members get reelected, a practice known as gerrymandering.
Good-government groups say it's a glaring conflict of interest, and are pushing for reform in time for the next redistricting cycle, which begins early next year.
This four-part series takes a deeper look.
It almost goes without saying that in a functioning democracy, the voters choose their representatives. But some say it’s the other way around in New York where by drawing their own district lines, Albany lawmakers can pick and choose which voters they represent -- a longstanding phenomenon known as gerrymandering.
"Partisan gerrymandering essentially allows the legislators to choose their voters before the voters actually elect them to office. It is a very manipulative process," said Dick Dadey of the group Citizens Union.
"It is a political process that is designed to protect the powers that be," said Susan Lerner of the group Common Cause New York.
By law, the lines must be redrawn every 10 years, with New York divided up into districts for each of its 62 state senators; 150 State Assembly members; and 29 members of the House of Representatives.
So who exactly gets to draw the lines? It’s a process essentially controlled by the leaders of each house in Albany -- the Assembly speaker and the leader of the State Senate. And historically, they’ve drawn the lines to make sure their members get reelected, and that their party remains in power.
Consider that statewide, Democrats outnumber Republicans almost two to one. Yet Republicans maintained control of the State Senate for more than 40 years. This time around, with Democrats having won a slim majority in the senate two years ago, Malcolm Smith told upstate Democrats earlier this year, "We are going to draw the lines so that Republicans will be in oblivion in the State of New York for the next 20 years."
Smith later downplayed the quote, but the effects of past gerrymandering are unmistakable on the map.
Assembly District 131 is mostly suburban, but hooks through Rochester to capture urban Democrats. Meanwhile, to capture Republicans, Senate District 51 covers seven upstate counties and has been said to resemble Abraham Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner. The term “gerrymandering” itself dates to 1812, when a Massachusetts district was depicted in a cartoon as a salamander, or a gerrymander, after governor Elbridge Gerry.
With the redistricting process set to begin early next year, there’s a major push to reform the process now, or else change will have to wait another 10 years.