When the New York State Legislature redrew its district lines this year, it proclaimed its determination to do the job fairly and openly. A bipartisan task force was given wide latitude to draft recommendations. The panel held two sets of hearings and incorporated public suggestions into its proposals. Yet while the smoke-filled room may be a thing of the past, the final legislative districts reflect a new variation on the age-old practice of gerrymandering.
Until the 1960s, gerrymandering meant only one thing: drawing district lines to give the dominant party an advantage. The word was coined in the early nineteenth century after Massachusetts Governor Elbridge Gerry’s party drew a salamander-shaped district through Essex County, north of Boston. In pre-Sixties New York, the GOP was invariably the beneficiary of gerrymandering. Today, however, it is often a bipartisan undertaking, in which legislators draw district lines to create large numbers of “safe” districts for incumbents. Race has also become a central factor: In 1982, Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act was amended, giving the U.S. Justice Department the power to reject district lines that fall to give minorities “equal voting opportunities.” Many lawmakers and civil rights groups have taken this provision to mean that ethnic minorities must be concentrated as much as possible into districts in which they are a majority of voters.
Because the New York State Legislature is divided—Democrats control the Assembly, Republicans the Senate—neither party could dominate the redistricting process. Thus, it was clear from the start that the majority party in each house would determine the districts for its chamber, as was done in 1982. (The Legislature was unable to agree on terms for redrawing U.S. congressional districts, so that task is now in the hands of a federal court.) The task force’s proposals, passed March 9 after minor modifications, revealed an undisguised effort to strengthen the party in control of each house and to establish as many “minority majority” districts as possible.
In the Senate, the new lines put ten incumbent members—all Democrats—into five districts, assuring that at least five would have to retire, move, or be defeated in a primary. Similarly, eight Assembly Republicans were paired into four districts. Six Democrats were also bracketed into three Assembly districts, and one district included the home of an incumbent of each party.
In drawing the new district lines, the Legislature ignored New York’s Constitution, which under a century-old amendment requires that as few counties as possible be subdivided in forming districts and that districts be geographically compact. The compactness requirement was intended to prevent district lines from being shaped for partisan advantage, in direct response to a notorious gerrymander of the 1890s. The motivation underlying the requirement that counties not be split was mixed: One of its initial purposes was to perpetuate Republican dominance by guaranteeing all but the smallest counties their own seats. Still, these rules provide clear and objective criteria for drawing districts, and should serve to limit gerrymandering. Unfortunately, the courts have almost never enforced these requirements, and the Legislature has been left to carve out districts in contravention of both geographic logic and constitutional intent.
It would have been quite possible, for example, to devise a districting plan by dividing only three smaller counties (those with populations under the district average) for each house of the Legislature. Instead, the plan that was passed subdivides eight such counties in the Senate and ten in the Assembly. Assembly District 147, outside Buffalo, contains portions of six different counties. The task force declared it necessary to divide counties in order to comply with “federal equal protection and minority representation requirements.” But most of the affected counties are in remote rural areas, far from any racial minority concentrations. Clearly the county-integrity requirement was ignored because heeding it would have made it more difficult to protect majority-party incumbents.
Violations of the compactness requirements are even more striking. Perhaps the most extreme example is the 33rd Senate District, part of which is shown in the map above. Starting in the southwest Bronx, it wiggles through widely separated parts of the borough, then crosses the city line, picking up a piece of Mount Vernon. It is 56 percent black. The neighboring 34th is 69 percent white and elects a Republican senator whose prospects were considerably enhanced by the way the boundary was drawn. Both districts cross the county line: The Westchester portion of the 34th wraps around the top of the 33rd to pick up the whiter, more Republican parts of Mount Vernon and Yonkers.
Governor Cuomo had threatened to veto the redistricting bill if he thought it unfair. But his threat turned out to be moot: Though many Assembly Republicans and Senate Democrats denounced the plan, it won the support of enough minority-party legislators in each chamber to override a potential veto. In the Senate, seven Democrats joined 34 Republicans to provide a 41-18 margin. The Assembly vote was 102-46, with more than twenty Republicans joining the Democratic majority. In neither house could the majority-party members alone have provided a veto-proof margin.
Minority-party legislators are willing to support a plan clearly not in the best interest of their party because the plan makes their individual districts more secure. Maximizing the seats held by the majority party entails concentrating minority-party voters in a smaller number of districts that are more securely held by the minority party.
Both parties were also complicit in efforts to draw districts by race. Democrats either agreed that it was the best way to empower minority voters or feared offending major elements of the party. The GOP, on the other hand, directly benefits from racial gerrymandering, even though minority districts seldom elect Republicans. When ethnic minorities are concentrated in their own districts, the surrounding districts become whiter and thus more likely to elect Republicans. By the same token, three of the Senate Democrats who broke ranks and supported the Republican gerrymander were members of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus.
If the new gerrymandering will simply extend the terms of present members, what’s the great harm in it? For one thing, the less compact a district, the harder it is for its representative in the Legislature to know what his constituents need or want. Creating a district in which a member of a racial minority will surely be elected may reduce the same minority’s population in an adjoining district to the point where its wishes can safely be ignored by the district’s representative. Creating a district of two widely separated concentrations of voters, joined by a thin line, may force its representative to support the wishes of one concentration while the wishes of the other are unvoiced.
More importantly, all forms of gerrymandering are efforts to predetermine election results, to stack the cards by removing the decision-making process from the voters and giving it instead to those who draw the lines. Such cynical manipulation of the process can only breed cynicism on the part of the voters. If boundaries were drawn according to explicit, enforceable rules, neutral as to party and race, no group or candidate could obtain special advantages—and none could be purposely victimized.