Close Election and Redistricting in New York

Votes are being recounted New York’s State Senate District 60. The challenger Mark Grisanti, who is a registered Democrat who plans to caucus with Republicans, leads incumbent Democratic Sen. Antoine Thompson by a scant 598 votes. During most elections years the race for District 60’s Senate Seat is over after the Democratic primary because registered Democrats outnumber Republicans 5 to 1. This year the decision of long time Democrat Mark Grisanti to switch his party affiliation will keep the contest interesting even after Election Day. The outcome of this race, and two others where Democratic incumbents are threatened, could determine which party has control of the State Senate during redistricting process taking place next year.

A study published in October by the New York Public Interest Group (NYPIRG) called The Case for Redistricting Reform examines New York’s redistricting process, which is designed to protect incumbent candidates from both parties throughout the state. Redistricting in New York is under the control of the state legislature, with the governor possession veto power. Both chambers create their own plans with the help of the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment (LATFOR).  The Task Force is comprised of one legislator and one private citizen to serve selected by the majority leader of the Senate and the speaker of the Assembly, as well as one legislator from the minority party in each house. While LATFOR can give input, the final plan ultimately is determined by the state legislature. Under the current system the redistricting process is hidden from the public and the focus is not the interests of the voters, but rather protecting those in control of the legislature.

The study examines the tendency for the maps drawn by the legislatures to, “rig district lines in favor of the majority parties in each house and the reelection prospects of incumbents.” Analysis of voter registration over the past ten years revealed that only 25 of the 212 state legislative districts (12 percent) were created with comparable number of major party enrollments. Between 1980 and 2008, nearly 3,000 state legislative general elections took place and in only 39 races did a challenger succeed in defeating the incumbent.  The Case for Redistricting Reform also observed that in general elections between 2002 and 2008, over 65 percent of Senate races and 75 percent of Assembly races were decided by a margin of 2 to 1 or greater. Despite widespread electoral realignment across the country in 2010, at most six New York challenges will have defeated incumbent candidates (including the three undecided races).

When the state Senate races are finally decided, the chamber will be controlled by Democrats, Republicans, or split between the parties, while the Democrats maintain control of the Assembly. A survey conducted by the Quinnipiac Polling Institute found that New Yorkers believe electoral district lines should be drawn by a body completely independent from the state legislature by a 3 to 1 margin. During the campaign, Governor-Elect Andrew Cuomo signed a pledge to the group New York Uprising committing to create a, “redistricting commission to draft advisory maps for the Legislature to review and approve and to veto any commission that is not required to create contiguous, competitive, [and] compact districts.” New York Uprising is a bipartisan coalition of well-known former politicians led by former Mayor of New York Ed Koch and prominent good government watchdog groups including NYPIRG, the Brennan Center for Justice, the Westchester County Association, and Citizens Union of New York.

A plan conforming to the principles set forth by NY Uprising has been introduced by State Senator David Valesky (D) and former Assemblyman / now state Senator-Elect Michael Gianaris (D). They propose creating a citizen commission with the mandate to draw maps for congressional and state legislative district boundaries. The plan would go to the legislature for approval. The Senate and Assembly would then vote to approve or reject the plan, but would not have the ability to amend the first two plans proposed. The legislature would only have limited authority to amend the third plan. A three-step process is proposed to select the apportionment committee:

The apportionment commission would be selected by a nominations committee composed of eight members, with the president pro tem of the senate, speakers or the assembly, minority leaders of the senate, minority leader of the assembly each appointing two members. Members of the nominations committee could not serve if they have held public office in the past two year, a position as a lobbyist, a political party position, or are a relative or spouse of an elected or public official. The nominations committee would develop a pool of 40 applicants from which to select the apportionment commission. The pool would consist of 15 persons enrolled as Democrats, 15 persons enrolled as Republicans, and 10 persons not enrolled as Democrats or Republicans. The same legislative leaders would select two members, and these eight members would then appoint three additional members, one of whom would serve as Chair of the commission but no more than four members of the apportionment commission would be enrolled in the same political party.

The proposed process would create an imperfect but useful firewall between political motives and redistricting. The bill was approved by the Elections Committee but has yet to be debated on the floor. Action is unlikely during the lame-duck session, despite the Governor-elect’s pledge. A even split when the Senate reconvenes on January 3, 2011 may provide support from both sides of the aisle in the chamber for an easy answer for inevitable disputes  over which party should select more members for LATFOR. But if the Democrats control the Senate it is unlikely that they would want to give up the large advantage in redistricting power they would gain from controlling both chambers and the Governorship. Republican control of the Senate could help redistricting reform’s chances, as Republicans likely are concerned about how long they can maintain that control and would probably be eager to avoid being locked out of future redistricting decisions.

Regardless of the Senate’s decision on reform, the strong Democratic majority in the Assembly has shown little inclination to cede control over the redistricting process. Any chance for redistricting reform comes from Governor-Elect Cuomo’s position as a reformer. Under the current system the governor has veto power over redistricting plans, and governor Cuomo could use this power to force improvements to the process.

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