Talking about ethics is always a crowd-pleaser, particularly when scandals are as recent and as numerous as they have been in New York. So it was almost to be expected when Gov. Andrew Cuomo pledged in his January State of the State address to make ethics an important part of his agenda for the coming year.
Those reforms were to have included public financing of campaigns, limiting outside income for lawmakers and imposing term limits. Yet in recent budget negotiations, amendments that would have made those reforms possible were traded away. The cynical might say that, too, was almost to be expected. The electorate has gotten used to both the promise of reform and the failure to deliver.
Whatever the issue, from outside income to nepotism to the undue influence of lobbyists, elected officials will have little incentive to reform themselves until elections become truly competitive. To accomplish that, the current system of redistricting has to be scrapped.
The problem is gerrymandering.
The word is relatively new, but the practice is as old as elective politics. For the professional politician, nothing is as desirable as a “safe” seat, for which the incumbent faces only token opposition — or none at all. To bring this about, legislators draw weirdly shaped districts that cut across town or county borders and combine voters on the basis of party affiliation or perceived interests. The members of the party that controls a governing body have a powerful incentive to manipulate election districts to their advantage.
The two most common forms of gerrymandering are cracking and packing. Cracking happens when voters of the same party are spread among several constituencies; packing occurs when those voters are concentrated in a small number of districts. Besides creating a party advantage, cracking and packing have also been used to effectively disenfranchise minority voters.
Nassau County Republicans were accused of cracking and packing during the protracted struggle to approve redistricting after the 2010 census. “It is demoralizing to see [them] used to such an extent in Nassau,” Nancy Rosenthal, co-president of the county chapter of the League of Women Voters, said in 2013. The map of legislative districts that ultimately received approval from the Republican-led County Legislature can only be described as bizarre.
The same issues exist on a larger scale in New York state. Assembly and senatorial districts — and even congressional districts — have the same jagged lines. Boundaries jut in and out to include or exclude, depending on what is needed to solidify an incumbent’s position. And it works: In 2016, only four incumbent state legislators lost at the polls.
Redistricting plans are coming under increasing scrutiny from the courts. In Pennsylvania, the League of Women Voters sued last year over the state’s congressional map, drawn in 2011, contending that it discriminated against Democrats. While the state has a roughly 50-50 split between the two major parties, Republicans won 13 of 18 seats in the state’s congressional delegation in 2014, and 12 of 18 in 2016. In January, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed with the League that the map was skewed.
At the same time, however, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed a lower court order in North Carolina requiring the state to redraw its congressional map, despite baldly partisan remarks from the legislator responsible. “I think electing Republicans is better than electing Democrats,” Rep. David Lewis was quoted in the New York Times as saying. In 2016, North Carolina Republicans took 10 out of 13 House seats, or 77 percent, although they garnered only 53 percent of the vote.
The high court is due to consider similar cases of alleged partisan gerrymandering by Democrats in Maryland and Repubicans in Wisconsin. But while the court has ruled that gerrymandering on racial grounds is unconstitutional, it has never overturned partisan gerrymandering.
It should. Only 58 percent of registered voters went to the polls in the 2016 general election, according to a PBS report, and that was regarded as a relatively high turnout. The 2014 figure was just 36.4 percent. In other representative democracies, turnout routinely tops 80 percent. A 2016 Pew Research study ranked the U.S. 31st out of the 35 member nations of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in voter turnout. One of the reasons citizens gave for their lack of interest was gerrymandering.
“The most important element of New York’s social progress agenda is equality: It is guaranteed by the Constitution and our belief in human rights,” Cuomo said in his January address. If those words are to be more than mere oratory, then one-person-one-vote has to become a reality. Until elected officials can be held genuinely accountable to the people they serve, any talk of ethics reform will ring hollow.