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Take politics out of N.Y. redistricting

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By ROBERT N. WELLS

NORTH COUNTRY PERSPECTIVE

Every 10 years subsequent to the constitutionally mandated census, states are obligated to redistrict their state legislatures and congressional delegation on the basis of census figures. Since 1962, the U.S. Supreme Court decisions Baker v. Carr and Reynolds v. Simms have mandated that legislative districts at the federal and state levels be equal in population with a variance up to 10 percent. These two court cases contributed to a revolution in redistricting based upon the principle "one man - one vote."

The court decisions provide fairness of representation by requiring legislative districts to be as equal in population as possible. What the court decisions did not review was how the determination of redistricting by the state legislatures was to be undertaken.

Historically, the newly elected legislature subsequent to the census redistricts the state legislature and the House of Representatives districts. Historically in New York, each legislative house determines their new districts, and the entire Legislature selects the congressional districts.

With the exception of six states, legislative redistricting is conducted on a partisan basis with the majority party determining the political geography of the state and federal districts. This is the way it has been done in New York since the 1894 state Constitution. Majority control of redistricting has often been called "gerrymandering," which is the drawing of legislative districts in a way to protect the party in power by the arrangement of the legislative districts.

Redistricting decisions by the legislature in most states are subject to the governor's veto or court review, particularly in cases of minority or ethnic voters. In sum, redistricting is a partisan activity and quite political because of its impact on political outcomes in the decade to come.

Prior to our most recent election in New York, former Mayor Ed Koch of New York City and a group of respected state leaders asked state legislators up for election to "take a pledge" to support nonpartisan redistricting in the next legislative session. A majority of candidates for Assembly and Senate seats signed the pledge to support nonpartisan redistricting.

Briefly, nonpartisan redistricting is the selection of legislative districts based on historical, geographical, community and racial/ethnic considerations. A commission of experts chosen by the governor and/or the legislature would draw up a reapportionment plan to submit to the governor and legislature. Recently, California voters approved a nonpartisan redistricting law. In cases of political gridlock the courts would determine the reapportionment based on the commission plan.

It will not take time to determine whether the newly elected New York state legislators would go ahead with the nonpartisan commission plan. Recently, Republican Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos indicated that it would be difficult to take politics out of redistricting. If the Legislature proposes a mostly partisan redistricting bill, Gov. Andrew Cuomo indicated he would veto it.

Legislative redistricting does not need constitutional approval, and the Legislature can frame a bill to create nonpartisan redistricting. Only strong public opinion and broad opposition to continuing the current partisan process is needed to take politics out of redistricting. Public response to Albany's actions regarding reapportionment is critical to remove partisanship in redistricting.

The writer is Munsil Professor of Government Emeritus, St. Lawrence University.

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