Elections are about choice. At least, they're supposed to be. But for many Nassau County residents, the choice in our elections is made before we even get to the polls.
That's because the process that determines the shape of our county legislative districts -- redistricting -- is controlled by political appointees who owe their designations to the political parties. A report recently released by the Nassau United Redistricting Coalition concluded that given the opportunity, both Republican and Democratic partisans will gerrymander legislative lines to gain advantage and protect incumbents.
The power grab and incumbent protection determine not only the balance of party power, but also affect how voters are represented -- whether elected officials understand and respond to complaints about a pothole that needs filling, a bureaucratic tape that needs cutting or the dilapidated commercial strip that requires a face-lift in a community not their own.
Nassau County voters know they deserve better. In a recent poll conducted by the Long Island Civic Engagement Table, a nonpartisan group that encourages greater participation, 81 percent of respondents supported a redistricting process led by voters and a nonpartisan staff, not the political parties.
Fortunately, there are models of success. Across the country, counties (upstate Ulster) and states (California and Arizona) have found that citizen-led redistricting reforms build faith and participation in government. In 2011, Ulster County Executive Mike Hein signed a bill into law that adopted legislative districts drawn by an independent panel. He cited the effort as "an example of government at its finest."
There are hallmarks of fair, nonpartisan reform. In Nassau County, an independent redistricting commission should be chosen from an open pool of applicants, open to all county registered voters. The group should include Democrats, Republicans and independents. Commissioners, who could be chosen by nonpartisan auditors, must meet objective standards -- for instance, lobbyists, elected or party officials and their relatives would be ineligible -- and should reflect the county's diversity.
The commission should work together, with one professional staff to develop the most comprehensive and inclusive district maps. Last year, Republicans and Democrats on Nassau's Temporary Districting Advisory Commission had separate staff and never met to attempt compromise. The 10-voting-member commission split along party lines, submitting separate Democratic and Republican maps to the county legislature. The legislature approved the Republican map in a party-line vote, delivering a map where only three of Nassau's 19 legislative districts are likely to see competitive elections.
The voices of voters must come first. Transparency is central to fair redistricting. Last year, the commission dismissed voters, with one member saying "public comments are gratuitous." So, we must start the next redistricting process now, with legislation that would ensure hearings across the county and that meeting minutes be made public within 72 hours.
Nonpartisan redistricting would help achieve fairer maps that would not needlessly split communities into different districts and could ensure greater electoral competition -- both of which make politicians more responsive to voters' needs.
Achieving fair redistricting reform in Nassau County will not be easy, but the system is broken and must be fixed. Our government will work better when it's finally accountable to voters, rather than the parties who are vying for our votes.
Alex Ascencio is a member of New York Communities for Change, and Nancy Rosenthal is co-president of the League of Women Voters of Nassau County. Both organizations are members of the Nassau United Redistricting Coalition.