WHAT DOES THE YEAR 1894 mean to you? Grover Cleveland was president. Thomas Edison opened the first ever Kinetoscope Parlors in New York City; today we’d call them movie theaters. And New York State adopted the fourth version of its state constitution.
Article III of that constitution set the number of members of the state Assembly and Senate based loosely on counties. But because counties have different populations, determining where to draw the lines that define each district got very complicated even back then, requiring formulas based on census figures. And the process has only grown more complex in the 118 years since the plan was hatched, as is clear from the promise of lawsuits and the threat of a veto by the governor in response to the latest plan released last week.
Reapportionment, the term for the shuffling of legislative district boundaries that happens every 10 years, is one this state’s most politically brazen activities–a legal way for the majority party in each house to steal elections. Put simply, the majority party fixes it so that its voters can control a majority of legislative districts. That ensures that the majority party retains its power for the next decade.
It’s called gerrymandering and both Democrats and Republicans do it by squeezing towns into districts like so much fruit cocktail. This year in particular, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans have outdone themselves, which probably means big, illogical changes for voters of Columbia County.
Right now all of the county lies within the 41st Senate District as does most of Dutchess County. The district is represented by Steve Saland (R) of Poughkeepsie. Under the proposed changes, all of Columbia County would be shifted to the 43rd District, which runs through Rensselaer County and into Saratoga County. It is currently represented by Roy McDonald (R).
This shift was most likely the result of the decision by Republicans to add a new state Senate seat just west of Albany, where a Republican has a good chance of winning. And each seat matters, because the GOP now holds control over the Senate by only one vote. The party’s rationale for creating this new seat comes from the formulas introduced in the state constitution of 1894.
The Democrats in the Assembly have had their way with the county, too, although the changes are somewhat less dramatic. Most towns in northern Columbia County fall in what would be the 107th District, not much different from the current district. Much of the rest of the county, from Stuyvesant to Ancram, including the City of Hudson, would be tacked on to the 106th District, which starts in the south at the Town of Poughkeepsie. Then there’s poor Germantown and Clermont, tacked on to the tail end of the proposed 101st District, which touches the Delaware River at its western end and looks in outline like a Transformer, one of those animated robots characters.
So here we have the spectacle of politicians putting their own short-term interests in reelection and holding on to power ahead of the greater public good–in this case the creation of legislative districts that follow logical geographic and demographic lines. That definitely is not news.
Does reapportionment matter to anybody but Albany insiders and political-compulsive media types? It might if you expect your elected state representatives to be familiar enough with your community to help you press state government to get something done (or undone) where you live or if you need someone to fight for the needs of rural communities when it comes to handing out tax money.
It also matters if you care about fairness and the future of democracy. The need for reapportionment happens because of changes in the population, and that’s a good thing. But the current way we carve up districts in this state only serves to further divide people along rigid party lines rather than encourage them to unite behind their obvious common interests.
The governor is right to veto this plan, but it probably won’t change as much as some people might hope. There has been a fair amount of outrage expressed over the nakedness of this year’s reapportionment, but it’s hard to blame the politicians for seizing the power that the law offers them. The real problem lies with us, the people they represent. If we don’t share the dismay over this politically self-serving process, why should our leaders behave any better than we ask them to?