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Senate Redistricting Proposal Earns Gerrymandering Label


CANTON - In the upstate-downstate divide, the north country has always seemed to be at the losing end to points south, be it school aid or the home address of the three men in the room.
But when it comes to voting for a state senator, one north country resident's vote goes a lot further than the vote of one Big Apple denizen.
That disparity in voting power led Bill Mahoney, of the New York Public Interest Research Group, to declare the most recently proposed Senate lines, released Thursday, "clearly the most gerrymandered lines in recent New York history."
It's all because of population size, a form of gerrymandering that good-government groups say has gone on for years, with 2012 being the most recent, and most glaring, example of the practice, critics say.
Here's how it works: The state figures out how big a Senate district should be by dividing the state's population with the number of seats in the Senate — 63 (that number is itself a bone of contention).
But a Senate district can go 5 percent above or below that average. Districts in Republican-heavy areas are underpopulated, flirting with the minimum, and the districts in Democratic-heavy areas, like New York City, go well above it.
That gives 292,870 residents of the proposed 48th District the same voting power and representation as 319,000 residents of a district in New York City. North country Republican Sens. Patricia A. Ritchie of Heuvelton (4.71 percent below average) and Joseph A. Griffo of Rome (4.61 percent below average) are a few local examples.
The effect on one district is, perhaps, theoretical. When it's spread across a region, it has a concrete effect on the direction of state government.
"Regionally, the Senate districts are smaller, therefore allowing for an additional state Senate district to exist upstate," said Richard Dadey, the executive director of Citizens Union.
According to an analysis by Common Cause, 26 upstate districts had an average population 4.5 percent below what an ideal district would look like. Twenty-eight Westchester County and New York City districts had an average population 3.3 percent above what an ideal district would look like.
The Republicans took control of the Senate at the beginning of 2011 with a 32-30 enrollment edge. And whoever controls the majority can control what comes to the floor, meaning that one seat would have made all the difference in the world of Albany.
It's not just the Senate that underpopulates some districts and overpopulates others for partisan effect. Assembly Democrats do it, too. North country Assembly districts are on the large side, though with the wide Democratic edge in that chamber, little is at stake if one or two districts change.
"It allows the Senate to empower itself in upstate districts and the Assembly to disempower the upstate districts," Mr. Dadey said.
But according to an analysis by Mr. Mahoney, Assembly districts were closer to the average when a legislative task force redrew political boundaries. Populations in 50 of 63 districts in the Senate were 3 percent higher or lower than average, an increase from 19 in 2002. In the Assembly, populations of 67 of 150 districts were 3 percent higher or lower than average, a decrease from 70 in 2002.
The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, made up of legislators and known as LATFOR, put out a series of maps with a balance of power tilted toward Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly. The maps earned a specific veto threat from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who called them overtly political.
That leaves the future of the proposed map very much in doubt, but Mr. Cuomo's preferred method of redistricting — giving the power to a group made up of people who are not legislators and who would ostensibly not have incumbents' interests in mind — is not going to happen because it's too late.
"The window is closed on having an impartial process," Mr. Dadey said.
Good-government groups are now focusing on making the process as good as it can get under the circumstances by adhering to certain rules. With a late June primary election expected, there's little time left.
One of those new rules would require that legislative districts fall within 1 percent of the average legislative district. Such a rule would mean Senate districts here would have to get much larger because they couldn't go nearly 5 percent under the mean. That shift alone — fundraising advantages and 2011's string of success for Republicans notwithstanding — could significantly alter the balance of power in the upper chamber.
Redistricting could go before the courts, too, but a recent Supreme Court decision affirmed the Texas legislature's rights to draw its own boundaries.
"You can go into the courts, but the court just whacked down the appellate court that was redrawing the districts in Texas," said Robert N. Wells, a professor emeritus at St. Lawrence University, Canton.
That leaves open the possibility of a last-minute deal that would include permanent, constitutional changes to the way the state redraws its political boundaries. That would go into effect for 2022, the next time the state redraws its lines. And after Senate Republicans went back on a pledge to change the process for this year, that solution hardly satisfies Mr. Wells, who said they'd just go back on their word again.
"It's a ruse," he said. "It's absolutely a ruse."

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