Senate Democrats should abandon the gerrymander

NOVEMBER 25, 2008
    After spending the better part of a century in the political wilderness, New York’s Democratic senators are justifiably exultant. They still have some kinks to work out, but the party clearly has the Senate leadership positions within its grasp.
    So far, the Democratic leader, Malcolm A. Smith, is saying all the right things — empowering the rank-and-file senators, using conference committees instead of “three men in a room” to hash out policy decisions and not hogging all the Senate money for the Democratic caucus. But there is one giant step that can radically improve state government and at the same time increase the chance of Democrats maintaining a long-term control over the Senate: Create a nonpartisan redistricting commission and kill the gerrymander.
    Redistricting, as the Senate Democrats well know to their long-suffering regret, is a seemingly boring but critically important issue. It is one of the most powerful tools in an incumbent’s arsenal. Every decade, state legislatures redraw congressional and state district lines. The law requires that each district contain an equal population. However, even with this requirement, political leaders are able to slice city streets to maximize political benefit. The antidemocratic results are astonishing.
    The insidious use of redistricting, the infamous gerrymander, allows elected officials to ensure safe seats for themselves and for their chosen supporters. Gerrymandering is a prime reason there is so little turnover in Congress. It takes a national tidal wave to dislodge most incumbents, and even then the seats are usually open. As even the most cursory observer of New York politics can attest, it is this power that has allowed the Republicans to maintain their Senate majority in the face of a huge statewide Democratic majority.
    And it is a difficult power to give up. Because of redistricting, elected officials can eliminate threats, both in the primaries and in the general election, by the judicious use of the gerrymander. Many potentially popular insurgents have actually had their block specifically cut out of a district map to prevent them from contesting an office. Few politicians are willing to give up their fail-safe insurance for the amorphous, and not widely respected, position of voter rights and actually helping their party in the long run.
    Other states have accomplished it — establishing nonpartisan redistricting commissions to draw district boundaries. But practically, there is a mountain to climb. One problem is getting their Assembly counterparts to sign on. No easy task, as the Democratic iron grip on the Assembly can only be damaged by such a commission.
    By creating a nonpartisan redistricting commission, the Senate Democrats can send a serious sign that the Albany policy of business as usual is over, while giving the Democratic Party the possibility of long-term success in the Senate. The gerrymander must die.
    Joshua Spivak is a research fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Center for Government Reform at Wagner College in New York.