Monday, May 15, 2006

New York: Redistricting reform is good for the voters - but can Albany provide it?

Redistricting reform is good for the voters

By AMO HOUGHTON Albany Times Union Monday, May 15, 2006 -- One of the most distasteful, partisan practices in modern American politics can be found within closed-door meetings of state legislatures. That's where party leaders carve out legislative and congressional districts that protect incumbents and solidify their power. The losers in these gerrymandered deals are the voters, who are left with little choices at the polls. Fortunately for voters in New York, a bill in the state Senate presents an opportunity to change that.Ballot initiatives to reform the redistricting process were defeated last year in California and Ohio. The Ohio initiative proposing an independent redistricting commission was defeated by 70 percent to 30 percent. Following this loss, many speculated about voter attitudes toward redistricting reform.
A recent Tarrance Group poll, conducted for the Reform Institute, found that while a majority of voters in Ohio favor some sort of redistricting reform, 49 percent of voters are opposed to redistricting before the next census, in 2010. Ohio voters saw the push for redistricting reform as a partisan power grab led by a Democratic leaning coalition.
To their credit, New York's reformers have learned this critical lesson. The Senate bill calls for an independent redistricting commission to take up the issue after each decennial federal census.
Despite the 2005 election backlash, voters do want to reform the process. The Tarrance poll shows 70 percent of Ohio voters support the idea of balance or competition, which are key principles behind redistricting reform, in congressional races. Simply put, voters want to choose their elected officials and do not want politicians choosing their voters.
Reforming the way legislative and congressional district lines are drawn in New York will work to dramatically restore public faith in elected officials by making officials more accountable and making the process more open. Redistricting processes throughout the country currently work to the detriment of these core interests.
Reformers should agree on three key points. First, we must focus the reform agenda and make redistricting the priority for the 2008 elections in preparation for the next census. The timing is critical to avoid even the appearance of a partisan power grab disguised as reform.
Second, we must iron out the conflicts before a proposal reaches the ballot. This means working with communities of interest and building bipartisan coalitions to convince voters that redistricting reform is not merely cover for a partisan power grab, but rather is truly in the public interest.
Third, reformers must be careful to not propose redistricting alongside partisan reform measures. That's what happened in Ohio and California last year.
The Supreme Court recently heard arguments in the Texas redistricting lawsuit that challenges partisan gerrymandering by incumbents. Texas, like too many other states, has a sordid history of nasty redistricting battles.
The court's ruling could fundamentally change the way redistricting is conducted by making partisan gerrymandering and mid-decade redistricting unconstitutional. Until then, state legislators must take the lead work to enact thoughtful reform.
Amo Houghton is a former congressman from western New York. He now is president of the Reform Institute, which submitted an amicus brief in support of the appellants in the Texas redistricting case before the Supreme Court.

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