New York Civic: Liar’s Poker By HENRY J. STERN

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Truth is the First Casualty In Redistricting, as in War

political issue of the year in New York State is redistricting following the 2010 census. New lines for legislative and Congressional districts must be drawn in time for the 2012 elections. New York is on the path to being one of the slowest states to adopt new lines.


 

Money may be the mother's milk of politics, but district lines are the arteries through which blood flows to nourish the body. They define the playing field, and do their best to see that it tilts in their favor. Their opponents do the same, trying to tilt the field in the opposite direction. The result is likely to be a double-tilted field, advancing the interests of the leadership of both parties at the expense of independents, dissidents, freethinkers and outsiders. The insiders usually come out on top; that is how they came to be insiders in the first place.

In a generally liberal and humane state like New York, it is useful for elected officials to be perceived as reformers, supporting honest and competitive elections, and rejecting rigged scenarios for suppressing dissent. The legislators try to achieve the result of limiting free choice and suppressing dissent while appearing to do the opposite.

That is why this is one of the more interesting issues that the powers that be deal with. The issue arises every ten years, which is when the Constitution of the United States requires redistricting. Distasteful as it may be, there is no way to avoid redistricting totally. But insiders, lobbyists and political machines can help to minimize its effects.

A classical proposal made by reformers is for an independent commission, preferably of academics or jurists, to draw district lines. Although such a blue-ribbon panel would also be subject to manipulation, it would be more difficult to manipulate than a panel of politicians, which is what the incumbents would generally prefer. Standards for population parity, contiguity and compactness, respect for physical boundaries such as rivers and mountain ranges, attention to political boundaries such as county and township lines, and consideration for ethnic groups are part of the medley of considerations for the delineation of boundaries of electoral districts.

The incumbents who control the drawing of the lines have a primary interest in self-preservation, which is truthfully described as the first law of nature. Self-preservation in this area often requires the diminution, decimation, deracination or destruction of other species, groups, families and individuals, since dividing a state into districts is usually a zero-sum game. As a result, lines drawn by the participants or their proxies should be viewed with a high degree of suspicion.

Politics is not a field of human enterprise with a high reputation for probity. The public is correct in its dim view of the ethics of some, but not all, elected officials. The desire to win the approval of constituents, many of whom have conflicting economic interests and moral values, brings about a level of deception in public statements and private undertakings, wherein candidates wish to appear as reflecting the views of a majority of their constituents, whether or not this is actually the case.

We are fast approaching the throes of political redistricting, a process which determines the influence and even the tenure of elected officials. If a redistricting bill passes both houses, it will go to Governor Cuomo. If he signs it, the matter will go to the Federal courts for review. If he vetoes it, the Legislature will have to adopt another bill or over-ride the veto, which would require a two-thirds vote of both houses. That would be difficult to obtain unless the fight is fixed. A proud governor is not likely to take a dive. But a high-stakes negotiation can yield the same result, if the media gives the governor a pass on his public commitment.

LATFOR, the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research, has offered proposals which are particularly egregious, in terms of good government and community values. Although the governor is highly unlikely to approve its odious proposals, which are contrary to every principle he has supported, the substitute that is likely to be offered will be less offensive. Nonetheless, if it is adopted, it will put off fair and honest districting for at least a decade. Whatever mess of pottage is offered deserves the veto that it has been promised.

The Federal courts have set June 26 as the date for a Congressional primary, though it has yet to be decided when the primary for state and local races will be. In an unprecedented turn of events, it now appears likely that there will be three statewide primary dates in New York State this year: the first on April 24, when Republicans will select their nominee for President; the second on June 26th; and the third most probably in September. These three primaries are almost certain to lead to confusion among the electorate and diminish voter turnout to levels even lower than the currently abysmal numbers, in which New York State ranks 48th in the nation among all states in voter participation.

Considering the time needed for adoption of the new district lines, for consideration if there is a veto, for court challenges, for mailing ballots to soldiers overseas and receiving them, the schedule is tight as it is. Further proceedings will lead to additional delay, which is not necessarily good or bad.

We predict that the next four months will see a political circus, as both parties circle around to protect their members from their constituents while appearing to be advocates of change, reform and progress. We are highly skeptical of anything the participants say on the subject, particularly when they discuss their motives.

Henry J. Stern writes as StarQuest. Direct email to him at StarQuest@nycivic.org. Peruse Mr. Stern’s writing at New York Civic.

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eHeziNew York Civic: Liar’s Poker By HENRY J. STERN

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