Democracy reform is not a partisan horse race

by Peter Wagner, August 11, 2010  

Saturday’s New York Times has an unfortunately partisan take on the end of prison-based gerrymandering in New York. The article doesn’t mention the benefits to upstate New York from the bill’s passage, and it sets up the facts in a way that inaccurately portray a huge win solely to metro New York. To me, the biggest winners on Tuesday are the residents of Rome New York and other upstate residents. In Rome, the bill means that no longer will voters see the residents of one city councilor district have twice as much influence as others just because their district contains a large prison.

Other upstate cities and counties will also benefit from the new protections against prison-based gerrymandering. Indeed, 13 NY counties already removed prison populations from the redistricting base for local redistricting even before this reform passed; their actions are now protected by state law instead of being subject to potential legal challenge.

At the state level, the benefits are probably more modest than the New York Times presented. There are many types of gerrymandering in New York State. The legislature eliminated one of them. That’s a huge win, but it’s not in itself going to change everything.

While the impact on local government is larger than at the state level, counting many people concentrated at the wrong address has a larger impact than counting them correctly at the many addresses where they actually live. As the Times Herald Record in Orange County New York editorialized on Sunday: “This will have a scattered effect in the city where a few thousand here or there will be added to several districts.”

The New York Times made the numbers sound more dramatic by including Republican-leaning suburbs in its definition of the larger New York City region; but the basic reality is the impact on New York City’s districts likely will be less than the impact on fairness now achieved for local upstate city council and county districts. What will be large is the impact on the handful of local districts upstate that have extremely large prisons. Those local districts will no longer be significantly padded with prisoners, and the winners will be the residents of all other city or county districts in upstate areas that do not contain a prison.

It is unfortunately a habit of journalists to view important electoral reform initiatives through the prism of horse-race political reporting, where nothing exists except partisan advantage. This perspective often overlooks the issues most important to people in their own communities. The victims of prison-based gerrymandering who do not fit into neat partisan categories such as upstate/downstate are easily overlooked. These include the residents of all upstate counties and cities who don’t happen to live in the same district as a prison — in other words, the majority of all upstate residents.

It is impossible to say what the state legislative districts will look like in advance. The Census data isn’t available yet and the legislators have too much discretion to draw the lines. But I can say with some clarity that of all of the kinds of reprehensible gerrymandering traditionally practiced in New York State, one kind — prison-based gerrymandering — is now off the table. Hopefully banning other kinds of gerrymandering won’t be far behind.

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