Members of the Nassau County Legislature argue about redistricting in...

Members of the Nassau County Legislature argue about redistricting in Mineola, New York. Credit: Howard Schnapp, 2011

Once each decade, boundaries are redrawn for local, state and federal legislative districts so their populations conform with the new census data. This November's election will be the first time voters see the consequences on their local ballots.

If you haven't paid much attention up until now, be aware that some of the people who represent you may have retired or been placed in neighboring districts. There are a good number of new faces, and that is a healthy sign.

Unlike the more dramatic population shifts in congressional districts that resulted in one less voice for Long Island in Congress, the Nassau County Legislature is still made up of 19 districts. Republicans, who control the chamber by one seat, 10-9, drew new maps with an eye toward shoring up their strongholds and tilting the balance in their favor in some new districts.

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That's what the party in power always tries to do, and it's a blood sport in both Albany and Nassau, since neither the state nor the county uses a nonpartisan commission to reconfigure the maps.

Redistricting is supposed to keep communities cohesive so that villages, school districts and other institutions have the clout to press for their common interests. Instead, voter registrations by party are what drives the process. In 2011, the first round of drawings for the Nassau County Legislature's new maps caused an uproar because they displaced some long-term Democratic incumbents, putting their homes in strong GOP districts. The Democrats balked and refused to provide the votes for county borrowing until they could negotiate a better outcome, and a slightly less one-sided map was ultimately agreed upon.

It's against this backdrop that the new Nassau County Legislature will be elected on Tuesday.

There were two retirements: one Republican, Joseph Belesi of Farmingdale, and one Democrat, Joseph Scannell of Baldwin. Two other Democrats left to run for town offices: Judi Bosworth of Great Neck and Wayne Wink Jr. of Roslyn.

If the changes in maps and candidates aren't enough of a challenge, Nassau voters, like Suffolk's, must make their way almost to the end of their ballots to find these legislative races. There they will find unfamiliar names. Or in a major South Shore community, just one name. In the 4th District, covering Long Beach, Denise Ford, an enrolled Democrat who has run for four terms on the Republican line and caucused with the GOP in the past, is endorsed by both major parties.

In four of the seven legislative races with an entrenched GOP incumbent or dominant registration advantage, Democrats won't be fielding a candidate. That's bad public policy for viable parties. In a democracy, voters should have a choice. Republicans, to their credit, found a standard-bearer for all six seats where the Democrat incumbent is heavily favored.

With the outcomes in 14 of the 19 races all but predetermined by gerrymandering or a cross endorsement, Newsday's editorial board screened candidates and made recommendations in five districts. We chose three races without incumbents and two potentially close contests.

The uncompetitive nature of many individual races is one reason Nassau seems to be running in place. It is plagued by an unfair and needlessly complex assessment system that costs the county millions of dollars, intricate labor contracts with work rules that favor overtime and weaken accountability, an aging and neglected infrastructure, and deep cuts in programs for youth services and the elderly. County finances remain under the control of a fiscal monitor, and there seems to have been no way to lift the wage freeze imposed on municipal workers.

Although the county executive leads government, the legislature has a key role in shaping initiatives that affect every community. The outgoing legislature, for example, approved the privatization of the county bus system and consolidation of police precincts. The one about to be chosen will serve as an important watchdog on county contracts, including the efforts to renegotiate the police contract, the execution of the new lease to renovate the Coliseum, and the spending of a huge influx of federal dollars to overhaul the Bay Park sewage treatment plant.

The turnout of voters in the county executive race between Republican Edward Mangano and Democrat Thomas Suozzi is expected to be a major factor in whether the legislature shifts from Republican to Democratic control. Regardless of who has the gavel, however, the county needs smart, energetic legislators who can guide it toward a brighter future.

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