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Editorial: Proof that New York electoral districts can be fairly drawn

New congressional districts suggested by a federal magistrate

New congressional districts suggested by a federal magistrate for Long Island (March 6, 2012) Credit:

New York State now boasts congressional districts that are better drawn, more compact and the most reflective of regional communities in a half century. This was not the result of having an independent redistricting commission in place. Nor was it because state legislators honored their pre-election pledges to be bipartisan in drawing these once-a-decade maps. Rather, it was the result of a force field of all consuming self-interest in Albany.

The state's good fortune came because Assembly Democrats couldn't agree on how badly to gerrymander Rep. Charles Rangel's district in New York City so the spoils would be theirs alone when the 81-year-old representative from Harlem chooses to retire. The feud between the Manhattan and Bronx county leaders became so intense that even Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver (D-Manhattan) wouldn't broker it. So a paralyzed legislature ceded the task to the federal courts, which got the job done in just a few weeks. To do so, a judge relied on nonpartisan maps that had been put forward by public advocacy groups such as Common Cause NY and academics and factored in comments from the public.

As a result, two of Long Island's four remaining congressional districts are quite different; both straddle Nassau and Suffolk counties and have a more logical east-west focus. A three-judge appeals court panel that approved the map on Monday noted that the "boundaries follow widely understood social and geographical distinctions between Long Island's 'North Shore' and 'South Shore' communities."

In the 3rd District, Rep. Steve Israel (D-Dix Hills) now has a swath from Smithtown to Bayside, just over the Queens line. The 2nd District seat held by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) goes from Islip to the Hempstead Town line. The border between north and south falls roughly around the Long Island Expressway.

Overall, the state's 27 new districts have more competitive voter registrations by party, with less preference for incumbents. That's a plus; with new hands to shake, members will have to spend more time working their districts.

Despite the lip service given to nonpartisan redistricting this year, the public got lucky only because of a feud. Still, a lesson was learned: It's possible to take politics out of the redistricting process if that's the goal.