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Redistricting amendment draws criticism

WBFO File Photo

The state board of elections has approved the language for a ballot amendment that would change the way redistricting  is done in New York. But not everyone is happy with the wording, or the amendment.

The November ballot amendment would permit the Senate and the Assembly to appoint members to what the amendment describes as an “independent” commission to redraw legislative district lines every ten years, as required by the census.

The state Board of Elections approved the language for the proposal at their August meeting. Board commissioner Andy Spano says he’s satisfied with the final wording.

“We all talked about it,” Spano said. “It made a lot of sense because it defined what was the initial intent of the legislature and the governor.”

Currently, the legislature controls redistricting directly, and traditionally, the majority parties in each house of the legislature have mutually agreed to draw the new districts to suit the party in power.  Critics say that’s led to all sorts of oddly misshapen districts, gerrymandered to help an incumbent lawmaker win re election, or keep the seat in the hands of one of the main political parties.

In 2012, lawmakers once again drew districts to favor the majority parties in each house, but agreed to pass a constitutional amendment to change the process for next time, in 2022.

But critics of the amendment say it would not really change anything. Susan Lerner with Common Cause, says the amendment is the opposite of reform, because it locks in the legislature’s control of the process for decades to come.

“This is Albany with the same old, same old, all over again,” Lerner said.

Lerner says it Senate and Assembly leaders would appoint eight of the ten commissioners. Those appointees would have final say over any new maps ultimately approved. She says it would allow the legislature to continue to be the puppet masters controlling the strings.  

“There is misleading language,” Lerner said. “It’s the voters, again, who are shorted in this process.”

Lerner attended the meeting, hoping to convince the  Board of Elections to change the language of the ballot amendment to something she considers more neutral. Common Cause, along with the New York Public Interest Research Group believe the new commission should be referred to as ‘bi-partisan’ to reflect the fact that lawmakers from the major parties in each house of the legislature would still have considerable control over the outcome.

But other reform groups, including the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, back the amendment, and had suggested the wording that was adopted by the board.

The Board also deleted some of the wording of the original amendment language, which was submitted by the State Attorney General. The initial version said that the legislature could redraw the lines, if the new commission’s redistricting plan is rejected by the Senate and the Assembly. While the legislature will still retain that ultimate power, it won’t say so on the ballot amendment that goes to voters in November.

Board of Elections Commissioner Spano concedes that no matter how it’s written, the redistricting amendment may be difficult for the public to comprehend.

“It’s not an easy issue, but probably one of the foremost issues in getting government to run more appropriately,” Spano said.

The Board of Elections also approved another,  less controversial amendment. It would allow the state to borrow $2 billion to upgrade technology in school classrooms.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. WBFO listeners are accustomed to hearing DeWitt’s insightful coverage throughout the day, including expanded reports on Morning Edition.