Michael Dawidziak is a political consultant and pollster.
Nassau County's latest partisan political brouhaha over redistricting has cast a spotlight on a process that few voters understand or even know exists.
This lack of familiarity is perfectly understandable, as reapportionment occurs only every 10 years and then is usually handled as a backroom deal. To appreciate why passions have risen to such a fever pitch, voters need to realize what's at stake.
While the U.S. Senate is made up of two senators from each state, regardless of that state's population, the founders made the number of representatives in the House proportional to state population. Knowing that populations would shift over time, they allowed for a counting of all residents and a subsequent reapportionment of the number of districts per state, with a redrawing of those district lines.
Counties and towns that elect representatives based on legislative districts follow this model, too, redrawing their district lines every 10 years based on the census.
This is serious stuff. It results in some states or areas having enhanced or diminished governmental power. New York, once the most populous state, had the most seats in Congress back in the 1940s, with a high of 45. As people moved westward, New York saw its share of representatives shrink to its current 29, and we'll lose two more seats based on the 2010 census.
The founders' intent was to ensure fairness and accurate representation. But over time, what has evolved is a once-a-decade hardball negotiation between the two parties, to protect their respective incumbents and try for as much future electoral advantage as they can get.
Traditionally, states and counties have formed redistricting committees with the party in power having slightly more people and influence. The horse-trading sometimes results in fair compromises and other times in ridiculous-looking gerrymandered districts. This is one of those times when you really don't want to see the sausage being made -- but it's important to keep an eye on the process.
Given the technology available today, many mathematicians and demographers question why politicians are involved in the process at all. They point out that it would be fairer and more accurate to let a computer draw the lines. But it's probably unwise to kick the politicians out altogether. Public policy issues have to be considered so as not to split up communities or towns that belong together. Only human experience and accumulated knowledge could take this into account.
All of this makes the Nassau Republicans' ram-through of their redistricting plan for the county legislature even more striking. First there's the timing. They argue that the county charter requires a new plan be approved within eight months of the release of the new census figures, which they say was April 1. However, the census' demographic profile for New York, certainly pertinent data, wasn't released until May 12. The legislature voted on the plan on May 24.
A more reasonable time frame for this highly complex and technical process would push it past November, so the new lines wouldn't take effect until the county elections of 2013. That's what will be done in Suffolk County. But the Nassau Republicans don't want to take any chances on this November's election shifting the balance of power -- putting the Democrats in charge of the redistricting plan and producing one more advantageous to them. Of course, that's just what the Democrats want.
Both sides are going about this in a way that largely excludes demographic experts and the public at large. The Democrats are, after all, only complaining because of their own exclusion.
Nationally, there's a call to open up the process to be fairer. But Nassau officials seem to prefer the dark and cozy confines of the old-fashioned back room.