In addition to important elected positions, the November 4 ballot contains three proposals. One of them, Proposal 2 – on electronic transmission of legislation – is a mundane, housekeeping issue. The other two, however, have much broader implications.
Proposal 1 deals with the way the state's legislative and congressional districts are drawn. Proposal 3 would permit the state to sell bonds for $2 billion and divide the proceeds among school districts for several types of school improvements.
We're giving our endorsements for Proposals 1 and 2 this week, and we'll discuss Proposal 3 next week.
New York State is divided into 63 State Senate districts, 150 smaller Assembly districts, and 27 US Congressional districts, and after every federal census, the lines are redrawn to take population changes into consideration.
Who does the drawing is important, because the district boundaries can be manipulated to benefit candidates and political parties. Right now, a six-member legislative commission – four of them state legislators – draws the lines. The temporary president of the Senate and the speaker of the Assembly (usually the majority-party leaders) each name two of the six, and the Senate and Assembly minority leaders each name one. And predictably, for years the legislators have drawn the lines to benefit themselves: Republicans in the Senate, because until recently they've been in the majority in the Senate, and Democrats in the Assembly, where they hold a large majority.
Good-government groups and other citizen activists have argued for years that an independent group should draw the district lines, but legislators have liked things the way they are. And change isn't easy. The redistricting process is specified in the state constitution, which can be amended only by voters in a referendum following two separate, positive votes by the legislature.
Voters finally get a chance to do that this year with Proposal 1. If it passes, a new, 10-member commission will draw the lines, and none of the 10 can be state legislators. There'll still be plenty of ties to legislators, though. The four legislative leaders – the Senate's temporary president and minority leader and the Assembly speaker and minority leader – will appoint eight of the 10. Those eight will appoint the additional two.
None of the 10 can be – or can have been in the previous three years – members of the state legislature or their spouses. They can't be members of Congress or their spouses. They can't be statewide elected officials or their spouses. They can't be state officers, state employees, or legislative employees. They can't be lobbyists registered in the state or a political party chair.
And the two members appointed by the other eight can't have been enrolled in either of the two major political parties in New York State in the past five years.
Prop. 1 has divided good government groups and others who have been pushing for state government reform. The League of Women Voters and Citizens Union are strongly in favor of it, for instance, and Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group, and the NAACP's New York chapter are adamantly opposed.
We're giving it a weak endorsement. Prop. 1 is far less than ideal. It's good that the people who draw district lines won't be legislators, who have a vested interest in controlling the boundaries of districts in which they'll seek re-election. But commission members will be only one step removed, certainly subject to influence by those who appoint them.
However, the new structure of that group will guarantee that both Republicans and Democrats will have equal say in drawing the district lines for the Senate, Assembly, and Congress, regardless of which party is in control in each. Right now, because the majority leaders of the Senate and the Assembly make two appointments and the minority leaders make only one, minority members are always outnumbered.
Under Prop. 1 the commission is supposed to abide by several "principles" when it draws new district lines. Redistricting can't result in abridgment of minority voting rights, for instance, and "to the extent practicable," the new districts "must contain as nearly as may be an equal number of inhabitants." Those and most other principles apply to the current redistricting process. One new restriction could be important: districts can't be designed to discourage competition or protect an incumbent or political party. Proving that that was the intent would be difficult, though.
Critics like Common Cause also worry that because strength on the task force will be evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, deadlocks are likely. If that happens, and the commission can't agree on new lines, the legislature can amend the second plan "as it deems necessary." It would be expected to abide by the principles established under Prop. 1.
Weak as the new procedure would be, guaranteeing a balance of people in both major parties is better than what we have now. And that balance would be even more important if a one party controlled both the Senate and the Assembly.
Common Cause argues that Prop. 1 "will lock a flawed redistricting plan into the state constitution." But if Prop. 1 fails, we'll be stuck with an even worse plan. And our hunch is that there'd be no more chance of changing the old procedure than there is of revising this new one.
The state constitution requires that all bills be printed on paper and given to legislators three days before they vote on them. Prop. 2 would permit the state to provide those bills electronically, saving substantial money and paper.
For both environmental and financial reasons – not to mention plain common sense – Prop. 2 makes sense, and should be approved.
Next week: our take on Proposal 3, the "Smart Schools Bond Act."