The Boundless Nature of Political Redistricting

The Boundless Nature of Political Redistricting
Tough decisions
Ron Seyb

October 20 2012

During the day Ron Seyb is a political science professor at Skidmore College, where learning is serious business. If we garnered anything from the movie Animal House, of course, it’s the understanding that knowledge is good. Fortunately for us, Seyb forgets all that when he heads home and instead focuses on things that really matter – such as humor. Here’s his latest dispatch.

I am a licensed and bonded political scientist.  I mention this in case my mother is reading, a woman who remains convinced that the only conceivable reason why I would leave Edenic Southern California to relocate to rural New York would be to become a rodeo clown (which she concedes is “the Cadillac of clowns”).  I also mention this biographical detail to establish that it is my job to remain abreast of every important political development.

One feature of the local political landscape that I have always assumed would remain unchanged is the boundaries of my congressional district.  My wife and I have voted in the 20th district, which includes both Saratoga Springs and Ballston Spa and covers an area extending from Hyde Park to Lake Placid, since we arrived in the area back in the mid-1980s.  While our fidelity to the 20th did not match that which Mel Brooks’ 2,000 Year Old Man harbored to his cave (“Let them all go to hell except Cave 76!”), we did feel some frisson of civic pride whenever an election approached, confident that we would know the candidates well enough to make fun of their least attractive physical features in the well-informed, respectful way that the Founders intended.

I was hence devastated to learn only a few days ago that my Representative, Chris Gibson, had broken up with me, apparently with as little remorse as my college-aged niece had shown when she “broke up with Spanish” last spring.  The New York State Legislature’s redrawing of the state’s House district lines, of course, occurred over four months ago, which makes me, in the legalistic language of my professional certification board, “a dolt.”  I am as a consequence of my negligence suffering a bit of status anxiety.  But what has really caused me to sip a Patron just to calm my nerves is that, since I live in Ballston Spa, my new district, the 21st, no longer includes Saratoga Springs, where I work, which remains in a newly configured 20th district now represented by Paul Tonko, who, by the way, used to represent the 21st district, which, to review, is now my district.  And, of course, Chris Gibson no longer represents the 20th district.  He now represents the 19th district, which includes parts of the old 19th and the old 20th, though not those parts of the 19th that have a large number of Democratic voters since those needed to be moved to the 20th with Tonko to ensure that Tonko would be safe in his new district.  As John Lennon once said when trying to characterize a similar situation, “Coo, coo, ca choo.”

To summarize, I now live in one district (the 21st), work in another (the 20th), have a former congressman who represents yet another district (the 19th)…and, oh, yes, I neglected to mention that my new representative, Bill Owens, formerly represented the 23rd district, which stretched from Oswego to Plattsburgh, two cities that I have as much acquaintance with as I do with Fermat’s Theorem.

There may, thankfully, be a treatment for me and others who are suffering from gerrymandered-induced vertigo, one that is consistent with the American ethos of “I do not need a professional to remove the lead paint from my baby’s nursery with a flamethrower”:  Draw your own congressional district.  A group of political scientists has established “The Public Mapping Project,” whose goal is “to change the power balance (between politicians and voters) by making it possible for the public to generate redistricting plans for their states and localities.”  Now, the software supplied by The Public Mapping Project’s web site to allow a disaffected voter to draw a new district requires a Cray computer and a barrel of universe juice to operate.  But if you can access these raw materials, then you can carve out a district for yourself and your neighbors that does not resemble the crater in the desert floor that Wile E. Coyote made whenever he made the mistake of looking down.  The Public Mapping Project’s hope is that these citizen drawn plans will provide courts with a series of models that they can use to prod state legislatures and governors to construct districts that will produce competitive elections for the House of Representatives.

Even The Public Mapping Project’s progenitors would concede, however, that this idyllic future of citizen constructed district maps is a considerable way off.   What can perplexed voters do in the interim?  Roman Polanski offered an answer to this question at the end of Chinatown, his tale of political legerdemain in 1930s Los Angeles:  “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”  But perhaps our fate does not have to be to continue to endure America’s peculiar brand of political noir.  A handful of states, located principally in the West, have reformed their redistricting processes in ways designed to create more rational and understandable districts (i.e., districts that follow natural or political boundaries) that feature close partisan balance.  Governor Cuomo and the legislature this past March approved a constitutional amendment that would establish a 10 member commission charged with drawing fair congressional and legislative districts.  The amendment, however, still must be approved by the members of the new legislature, which will convene in Albany in January 2013, and then needs to be approved by voters in a referendum.  Will this happen?  I know what Roman Polanski would say.



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