This November voters around the state have the chance to take back their democracy by voting for Proposal 1, an amendment to the state constitution that will be a first step in reforming the redistricting process. With each passing year, our state legislature seems to grow more polarized, stalling the passage of common sense bills. Raising the minimum wage and achieving equal rights for women should not be held-up in what has become a stalemate legislature.
This alarming trend is a direct result of our state’s rigged and dysfunctional redistricting system. By allowing legislators to determine their own district borders, the current system has been focused on maintaining the power in Albany. As a result, legislators have little to no incentive to reach across the aisle when it comes to the business of the people.
Proposal 1 ends Albany’s stranglehold on New York’s politics by shifting mapmaking control from the legislature to a politically-balanced commission. This removes legislators from directly drawing lines and instead allows outside observers to drive the agenda, ultimately taking control from those with a vested interest in maintaining power.
The amendment will place strict rules on the maps the commission can produce, outlawing any districts that favor any political candidate or party. It also puts bans on who can serve on the committee to keep out lobbyists and any others with a conflict of interest and requires an explanation of any drastic changes to district lines.
This kind of reform is long overdue. In New York today, lawmakers face virtually no pressure to draw fair maps or reform the system. In the last round of mapmaking, lawmakers knew that the State Senate would contain a new seat almost a year before informing the public, allowing them to lock in maps to protect their interests well before the public could weigh in.
The current dysfunctional system has taken a heavy toll on New York’s democracy. When lawmakers are protected against challengers, there is little need to debate important issues and satisfy constituents. Voters deserve more choices in order to best facilitate their decision about who represents them.
In 2012, 97 percent of incumbents were re-elected to another term. Those who do face competition – just under two-thirds of all contenders – are guaranteed a massive margin of victory, with an average 61 percent gap in the last round of elections. Given the almost complete insulation of lawmakers from voters, it is deeply disappointing and unfortunately not surprising that some legislators have abused the public trust. Since 2000, 28 officials have been evicted from office for crimes of every nature.
In Queens, the question of disenfranchisement also looms large. The 2010 census showed that Hispanics and Asian Americans made up an almost equal fraction of the county’s population as whites. It should have been an opportunity for these groups to make significant gains in the state legislature, yet they were even more underrepresented when all was said and done.
Proposal 1 would make such gains possible by barring protections for incumbents and enshrining in the state constitution the protections currently in the federal Voting Rights Act.
Proposal 1 will give New York State a long-awaited opportunity to limit partisan influence on the redistricting process. All New Yorkers should vote “Yes” on Proposal 1 – the best chance in generations to usher in a dramatically better system of redistricting.
Tony Avella represents the 11th District of northeast Queens in the State Senate.