Op-Ed: Redistricting Struggle Returns

Back 15 years ago Suffolk County became the first county in New York State to enact a law to have reapportionment—the word redistricting is now favored—done in a non-partisan manner. “A Local Law to Ensure a Non-Partisan, Fair and Objective Process by Which Legislative Districts are Reapportioned,” was the title of the 2007 measure.

It was authored by then Suffolk County Executive Steve Levy who in his prior positions as county legislator and State Assembly member was familiar with—and long-bothered by—redistricting being a highly partisan undertaking.

Congressional districts and state and county legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years following the decennial national census which produces new population figures.

Redistricting done to favor a political party is a sorry U.S. tradition first given the name gerrymandering in 1812. The word was coined by the Boston-Gazette to describe reapportionment under a Massachusetts governor named Elbridge Gerry. The “mandering” part came from a State Senate district that looked like a salamander.

In gerrymandering, a district gets packed with voters of one party—even if geographic contortions make it look like a salamander.

Under the Suffolk law, following the national census a Reapportionment Commission is to be established. The majority and minority leaders of the Suffolk Legislature are to evenly divide filling it with four retired judges, two representatives from groups “committed to the principles of voters’ rights” and two from “publicly recognized minority organizations.” (A component historically of gerrymandering has been racial and ethnic minorities being spread among districts to preclude election of a minority person.)

Levy tried while a county legislator a decade earlier to get a similar measure passed but it got nowhere. With clout as Suffolk County executive, he was able to resurrect it and seek a bipartisan coalition on the legislature to pass it.

He held a press conference in 2011, the year the Suffolk law took effect, along with then New York City Mayor Ed Koch who had been crusading for non-partisan redistricting statewide. Both emphasized a need for redistricting reform statewide. Levy commented that the 150 districts of the State Assembly had been “so gerrymandered over the years to be so Republican or so Democrat [that] only 11 percent are considered competitive.” With “wink-with-nods,” he said, politicians had “rigged” the system to make it extremely difficult for newcomers to challenge incumbents. That’s another component of gerrymandering—continuing throughout the U.S.

Indeed, a lead story on Page 1 of The New York Times last week was headlined: “New Voting Maps Erase Competitive House Seats.” The February 7th article began: “The number of competitive congressional districts is on track to dive near—and possibly below—the lowest level in at least three decades, as Republicans and Democrats draw new political maps designed to ensure that the vast majority of House races are over before the general election starts.” It said “mapmakers are on pace to draw fewer than 40 seats—out of 435—that are considered competitive.” This is a reason cited in the push for term limits.

In 2014, voters in New York passed a constitutional amendment creating a 10-member New York State Independent Redistricting Commission. But the commission failed to achieve a consensus in 2021 on new districts. So, the Democratic majorities in the State Assembly and Senate moved ahead with their own plan.

In Suffolk last year, the deadline for the appointment of a full complement of members of its Reapportionment Commission was missed, said the legislature’s presiding officer, Democrat Rob Calarco. So, its Democratic majority passed its own redistricting plan.

Thus, in Suffolk and the state, both redistricting commission initiatives failed last year.

This year, following a Republican majority taking control of the Suffolk Legislature, a deal was struck between Democratic County Executive Steve Bellone and the legislature’s new presiding officer, GOPer Kevin McCaffrey, to revive Suffolk’s Reapportionment Commission and have it come up with a plan for the 18 county legislative districts in coming months.

Meanwhile, the new state redistricting map is moving forward although there’s a Republican lawsuit challenging it.

And for Suffolk County, it’s salamander time for House seats.

Details on that next week.


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