Ciolli: Hey Albany, the citizens are coming

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(Credit: Illustration by Janet Hamlin)

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The line separating good government and bad politics moves every 10 years. Still, redistricting remains in the shadows.

But not for too much longer. New Yorkers have the tools and the opportunity to move that line out of the hidden rooms found just off the corrupting corridors of power, and toward a new, more open space energized by those who want a role in the rituals that determine who governs us.

Today, Newsday's opinion department and Newsday.com introduce UMAPNY, a website focusing on the redistricting process that will decide, for another decade, New York's electoral districts for members of the House of Representatives, the State Senate and Assembly, and county legislatures.


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The distance between the tumultuous events of the Arab spring and the self-serving machinations of the Albany winter is about 5,600 miles, but there is no distance in the impact of technology on our governance. The tools of social media allow us all to have more direct involvement with it. Collectively, your voice can no longer be ignored.

UMAPNY is an interactive mapping tool, allowing New Yorkers to draw the boundaries of their communities, based on their knowledge and understanding of its interests and economic standing.

The site allows users to see the maps of the current districts, based on the 2000 census, as well as proposed reform maps based on 2010 census data.

The official maps, which the legislature will vote on and which must be approved by the governor, will be released early next year. They'll be loaded onto the site when they become available. These maps are being drawn not by an independent commission, as many elected officials pledged to support in last year's election, but by the legislature's creature, the Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, known as LATFOR.

The reform maps on the UMAPNY site are offered as a benchmark, as a comparison to the official ones. The three statewide maps -- for Congress, and the Senate and Assembly -- were created by Common Cause/NY. Newsday licensed their use in a digital, interactive form. In creating these maps, Common Cause/NY adhered to nonpartisan standards developed two years ago by the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute, which were endorsed by the League of Women Voters.

Additionally, Newsday commissioned the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) at SUNY New Paltz to design new maps for the legislatures of Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester.

All six colorful maps -- rich with demographic data -- are accompanied by extensive explanations about the choices made by Common Cause/NY and CRREO.

Newsday does not endorse these maps. There is no ideal map. We are offering these as models of how alternative districts can be shaped when the primary goal is preserving the integrity of a community, instead of protecting incumbents' jobs. Redistricting is the most complicated of all government functions. Providing alternative maps, drawn by experts according to best-practice standards, makes the process more understandable. And it's sure to provoke your reaction on whether the current or the proposed maps best serve your interests.

We want your maps, too. Newsday.com will post the best ones. Over the next few weeks, we'll be adding more features to the site. Bookmark it as the go-to place for all the redistricting developments, and follow us on Twitter at #umapny.

 

A decade from now we don't expect to repeat this project. New York should institutionalize citizen involvement. Ohio and Virginia, which offered the inducement of prize money, held competitions for the best maps. So did the City of Philadelphia.

Citizen commissions in Arizona and Michigan are drawing the maps there. Florida's commission is soliciting citizen maps. Californians approved a ballot proposal in 2008 that created a truly independent format. In the open application process for its 14 seats, 36,000 people applied. For those who didn't make the cut, the state established regional centers to give them access to software that would allow them to submit proposed maps, too.

Here, in New York, well, don't ask.

LATFOR did hold hearings around the state, and citizen groups waited for hours to present their testimony. We've had the leadership of Common Cause/NY, as well as groups of students at Fordham and Columbia universities, who have produced their own maps.

What made the headlines instead were rumors that the Republican-controlled State Senate was seeking to stabilize its majority, creating a conservative seat by consolidating Brooklyn neighborhoods of Orthodox Jews. The Democrats, meanwhile, were carving up the Congressional seat in Queens that Republican Bob Turner won in an upset to replace Democrat Anthony Weiner.

That's how it usually goes. And the truth is, partisan compromise and accommodation will never be squeezed entirely from the process. Perhaps it shouldn't be. But accepting "to the victor goes the spoils" -- which allows one party to manipulate the game in its favor for a decade -- doesn't really do anything to help the voters.

 

The goal of all government reform groups, however, is to have races that are more competitive, more sensitive to the views of their constituents. Isn't it always better to have a "fair fight" than a "stacked deck"? The site will further these discussions with commentary and analysis.

"Safe seats" don't require representatives to work very hard to keep their ear to the ground and their feet in the community -- whether Levittown or Smithtown. And there's a downside for those of us who don't even live in these safe districts. We all lose when lawmakers on the ideological left or right are so untouchable they can afford to take extreme positions that defy good governance.

But exactly what is a "fair process"? Is it better to have all members of a minority ethnic or racial group in one district, to ensure their needs are represented? Or does that approach dilute their power? Are the interests of a group represented better by skin color or income? Do all the communities on the South Shore of Long Island have more in common with one another than they do with those on the North Shore? Should our districts be shaped more east to west than north to south?

Is it better for New Yorkers to have a split legislature, with each body controlled by a different party? Or is the integrity of the people elected and their motivations, regardless of party, the foundation of an honest, responsive government?

These issues, under debate by Supreme Court experts as well as local political leaders, will be spotlighted on our opinion pages and website.

Redistricting machinations have been around for as long as the nation. Now the public's frustration with their government at all levels is aligning with the relentless push of technology to democratize the process.

Redistricting in New York mustn't be a monopoly any longer. It will be if we allow it to remain in the shadows.Rita Ciolli is the editor of Newsday's editorial pages.

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