Gerald Benjamin is director of the Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach at SUNY New Paltz, where Joshua Simons is a research associate.
You don't need to look to Albany for intense, litigious battles over legislative redistricting. In Nassau, a partisan, racially charged fight in the legislature and the courts over district line-drawing has preoccupied the county for months.
For local governments, the decennial redrawing of district lines must meet the same national constitutional and statutory standards as the state's, and the process awakens the same core problem that makes redistricting a massive and recurring issue in Albany. Elected officials put their personal or partisan interests ahead of fairness, competitiveness and accountability to the electorate -- that is, ahead of the public interest.
Government at all levels is in bad repute in America. The issue of drawing fair new districts based on the 2010 Census data is important not only for assuring well-functioning representative democracy, but for rebuilding the very legitimacy of government itself for citizens. Within the limits of federal law and the parameters resulting from the natural environment and the communities and infrastructure people have built, steps may be taken toward both ends by drawing lines at a distance from those most self-interested -- and in a manner that ensures equal representation and gives voice and force to communities with common interests.
There's no shortage of working models. New York City Council redistricting has been in the hands of a charter-based commission since 1989. In Ulster County, the recently downsized legislature was redistricted by a seven-person bipartisan commission for the 2011 election. The process was highly transparent, and the result has been hailed for its fairness. The Suffolk County legislature is now being redistricted by a similar commission process.
In these three cases, final review or adoption authority is with the local legislature. The Hudson Valley City of Newburgh goes a step further.
Voters in Newburgh, where people of Hispanic background make up about half the population, passed a charter change in November to move from a five-person council elected at large to a council with seven members, four elected from districts and three at-large. In their new district-creating system, the decisions of the redistricting commission will be final.
There are at least 100 local governments in the state that elect legislatures, boards or councils from single- or multi-member districts: 40 counties, 44 cities, 12 towns and 4 villages. Based on the outcome of the latest census, many will have to redistrict. On Long Island, in addition to the counties, there are the towns of Hempstead, North Hempstead and Brookhaven. Moreover, demographic trends will likely increase the number of local redistricting jurisdictions in New York. The threat of -- or result from -- Voting Rights Act litigation often requires or induces increasingly diverse suburban communities to shift from at-large to district-based election of their governing boards, like Newburgh did. Districts came to Hempstead for the 2000 election as a result of such a suit.
In the Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester county legislative maps we drew for Newsday, we started from scratch. This is because any redistricting process that uses the status quo as a starting point can only be marginally better -- or worse -- than the status quo. We used these neutral criteria: substantially equal population, contiguity, compactness, and respect for communities and the geographic features that help to define them. We took no account of incumbents' residences or the partisan makeup of the county.
These maps are one example of the potential results of an independent redistricting process. They provide a basis for comparison for the plans that will soon emerge as redistricting proceeds in these counties. We hope that this initiative encourages a thousand flowers to bloom -- the result of both official efforts and citizen engagement. The outcome, we think, will be fairer, better, more democratic local government on Long Island, and throughout New York.