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What's fairness got to do with redistricting? Not much

The next time Congress and both houses of the state legislature are on the ballot, there will likely be fewer Congressional seats to fight over and very different legislative districts. Ideally, election districts are established to represent a region's population. The reapportionment of districts is based upon the U.S. Census, but fairness is not necessarily on the minds of those drawing the lines.

In 2014, New York voters set up an independent commission to draw state lines. It’s not going well in Albany, where the commission isn’t full and there’s no money.

University at Buffalo Law School Distinguished Professor Jim Gardner said the commission isn't that independent.

"Members are appointed by the legislative leaders and if you look at the people that they’ve appointed, they don’t fit the profile necessarily of an independent-minded regulator," said Gardner, "and secondly, all the commission can do is propose. The legislature has to approve."

So the people currently in office draw the district lines. Gardner said some states, including California, Arizona and New Jersey, have totally independent agencies drawing the lines, but not in New York.

Once the process is complete, New York is expected to have two fewer congressional districts and state Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt suspects Democratic-drawn lines will leave him with fewer Republican senators.

"Fair and honest representation and to have somebody who lives in Orleans County to be beholden to the City of Rochester or to have someone who lives in Wyoming County to be beholden to the City of Buffalo, I think, is a gross miscarriage of electoral justice," Ortt said.

For the first time in generations, Democrats are in absolute control of the process for Congress and the state legislature. Ortt suggests his party will eventually challenge the process in court, since they don’t have the numbers in either house to do so.

"They want to disenfranchise rural voters and voters with conservative leanings," Orrt said of Democrats. "There’s no two ways about it. The goal is clearly to try to further marginalize the Republican Party, but also what I would call center-right New Yorkers, which is rural New York, Upstate New York."

Some say state Democrats are doing what Republicans are doing in states they control in a long-game fight over control of Congress. However, Gardner said all this is nothing new.

"This game has always been played, obviously," Gardner said. "The term 'gerrymandering' itself arose from an early 19th-century 'gerrymander.' Even before that, James Madison was gerrymandered out of a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses."

Madison was president and an author of the U.S. Constitution and Federalist Papers.

Mike Desmond is one of Western New York’s most experienced reporters, having spent nearly a half-century covering the region for newspapers, television stations and public radio. He has been with WBFO and its predecessor, WNED-AM, since 1988. As a reporter for WBFO, he has covered literally thousands of stories involving education, science, business, the environment and many other issues. Mike has been a long-time theater reviewer for a variety of publications and was formerly a part-time reporter for The New York Times.
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