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Reform groups urge no vote on redistricting ballot amendment

Karen DeWitt
Blair Horner of NYPIRG, Susan Lerner of Common Cause, and Jesse Laymon of Effective New York present mock awards for most gerrymandered districts in the NYS legislature

Government reform groups are beginning their push early to convince voters to reject an amendment on redistricting that will be on the state’s November ballot. They say it’s a sham that does not offer the changes it promises.

The government reform groups say Senate and Assembly districts are drawn in New York in a blatantly partisan manner. They used humor to get their point across, conducting what Blair Horner, with the New York Public Interest Research Group, calls the Pablo Picasso-Salvador Dali contest for finding the most creatively designed district.
“The guy of melted clocks would be the only one who could really understand what we’re looking at,” Horner said.

Among the winners are districts they have named the Long Island crocodile, the Buffalo bender, and the leftover lightning bolt. Horner says the odd configurations are there for a reason.

“It’s raw political power playing out across the state,” Horner said. “To rig elections to the advantage of incumbents in the political parties that are in power in both houses.”

The crocodile district is currently held by Sen. Lee Zeldin, a Republican. The district follows the southern shore of Long Island, but cuts out a chunk in the western portion that includes a largely Hispanic community in Brentwood, in a pattern that resembles a crocodile jaw.

The Buffalo bender district, held by Sen. Mark Grisanti, curves to the north and south of Buffalo, with a thin sliver of the city in between.

The leftover lightning bolt cuts a jagged line from Utica south to Orange County. It’s held by Assemblywoman Claudia Tenney, who has complained it takes her three and a half hours to drive from one end of her district to the other.

The number one prize in the mock contest went to the Bronx district that circles most of the New York City borough, and reaches north to Westchester. It's held by Senate Co-Leader Jeff Klein, or as Horner calls it "the splattered bug on the windshield" district.

Klein’s spokeswoman, Candice Giove, counters that the districts design “does not benefit state Sen. Jeff Klein and does not prevent anyone from entering a race.”

Klein is being challenged in a Democratic primary by former state Attorney General Oliver Koppell.

Lawmakers configured the current districts in 2012, as part of a deal with Gov. Andrew Cuomo. They would be allowed to design the districts as they pleased to respond to the 2010 census, but would have to pass a constitutional amendment to reform the process for the next census in 2020.

At the time, Cuomo and legislative leaders hailed the agreement as significant reform.

Susan Lerner, with Common Cause, which has worked on the redistricting issue for decades, says the constitutional amendment won’t reform anything. In fact, she says it would not prevent the splattered bug or leftover lightning districts from happening again, but instead might make it even easier to draw them.

“This takes us backwards,” Lerner said. “This amendment which is on the ballot would, for the first time, memorialize partisan gerrymandering in our constitution.”

Lerner says at least the present provision in the state’s constitution, drafted in the 1890s, attempted to ensure compact and contiguous districts. She says the ballot proposal would allow legislative leaders control over the process through a committee that the leaders appoint. It also gives them the option of superseding any district lines that they don’t like.  

Lerner says that would ensure political parties maintain a stranglehold on the redistricting process for decades to come.

The groups say lawmakers have plenty of time to go back to the drawing board and do redistricting reform correctly, before the next time the lines are re-drawn in eight years.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.