Advocates say the way legislative districts are drawn creates noncompetitive elections, breeds corruption and is a leading cause of Albany dysfunction. There is a movement for reform, but as Bobby Cuza explains in the fourth and final installment of his "Crooked Lines" series, one man could stand in the way.
There is no denying the conflict of interest. Every 10 years, legislative districts are redrawn by the very people who have the most at stake in the process -- Albany’s legislative leaders. Advocates say it doesn’t have to be this way.
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.
"The solution is to remove the self-interest and the conflict of interest that exists with legislators drawing the lines and creating a citizen’s, independent redistricting commission," said Dick Dadey of the government watchdog group Citizens Union.
An independent commission is exactly the goal of legislation introduced by State Senator David Valesky and Assemblyman Michael Gianaris -- bills that have attracted dozens of co-sponsors.
"It would have an explicit prohibition on drawing lines to benefit one political party over another, or an incumbent over a challenger. And that would eliminate a lot of the shenanigans that we see going on right now," Gianaris said.
Meanwhile, momentum and public awareness are growing. A new documentary on the subject, "Gerrymandering," opens next month.
Former New York City mayor Ed Koch has even made the issue the centerpiece of his New York Uprising campaign. Gubernatorial candidates Carl Paladino and Andrew Cuomo have both signed Koch’s pledge to support redistricting reform.
The move is significant because whoever is elected governor will have the power to veto any redistricting plan that’s not done independently. But there is one man who could stand in the way -- Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver. Despite the fact a majority of Assembly members support reform, Silver has given no indication he’ll let a reform bill come to the floor for a vote. He has also declined to sign Koch’s pledge.
"He is the biggest enemy of reform in the State of New York. And we want everybody to send him letters denouncing him," Koch said.
In a statement, Silver said, "I will not stand in the way of redistricting reform, but it is an issue that requires additional work and significant dialogue."
"We need to make sure that the leadership of both houses understands that this is something that the people want, and something that a majority of their membership wants to get done," Gianaris said.
Reformers, though, say it needs to get done soon. With the next round of redistricting set to begin early next year, time is running out.