October 29, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: The Farce of Proposal One

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By ERIC PESNER

As someone completely obsessed with politics, the few days remaining before Election Day will be filled with both extreme stress and excitement. Despite the anxiety about finding out which party will control the Senate for the final two years of Barack Obama’s presidency, we all get to make our voices heard in the most fundamental way. When we go to the polls on Tuesday, we’ll not only be able to select our choice for Congressional Representative and Governor, but we’ll get to vote directly on changing the laws of New York.

There are three propositions on the ballot this year in New York. While propositions about the government reducing paper use and funding technology in schools might not seem to be very interesting, there is still one measure on the ballot this year that has attracted controversy. Proposal One aims to eliminate gerrymandering by establishing a commission that would draw the lines for congressional and legislative districts every 10 years during redistricting. Right now, the responsibility for redistricting lies with the state legislature, and this ballot measure would take that power out of its hands.

Gerrymandering is a large problem for the governance of the United States. When one party can draw the lines of the districts, they can effectively reduce the voting power of the other party’s voters. In 2012, we saw its effect when Democratic House candidates won the majority of the votes nationally, but the Republicans came away with a large majority of seats in the House. Because the Republicans got to control the development of new lines in a bunch of large swing states, they drew themselves maps that enabled them to get a majority of the seats without having to convince a majority of Americans to vote for them. It’s undemocratic and reduces the power of the individual voter to decide elections.

Nationally, many states have independent commissions to draw the new maps every decade, but there are two main types of panels. States like California and Iowa have a completely independent body selected by government officials who are not political actors. These panels are banned from coordinating with politicians or parties and cannot consider their opinions in drawing the maps. However, states like New Jersey have a commission that is selected by politicians and party officials. In systems like this, the fate of redistricting is basically tied to the political process and can be affected by political deal-making. In this system, one party usually gets the upper hand and passes the map they want, like the Republicans did in New Jersey and the Democrats did in Arizona during the last redistricting.

Proposition One in New York would establish the second kind of panel to handle redistricting. Instead of pursuing a purely independent commission, the state legislature wants a body whose members are appointed by legislative leaders. The Democrats and Republicans would have equal representation on the panel and it would be responsive to the party leaders in the two houses of the state legislature instead of to the people.

State political leaders are spinning this idea as a brilliant act of reform that would dramatically alter the way in which the lines would be drawn. In fact, this proposition is nothing but a farce. The Democrats and Republicans have historically colluded to maintain safe seats for incumbents and draw the maps that reaffirm their own power. This proposition would simply enshrine the current corrupt system in the state’s constitution and give it the shine of independence and bipartisanship.

Even the process of getting this measure to the ballot has been fraught with misinformation and corruption. The language that the legislature wrote to put on the ballot was overturned in court because it called the commission “independent.” The courts refused to allow the legislature to lie about the reality of the panel, since they found that there is nothing independent about it.

Because of all of this, not a single newspaper in the state has endorsed the measure. In its editorial, the New York Times called it a “phony reform.” In fact, the only people who support the measure are the politicians whose power it protects. And they hope they can get it passed if the people of this state jump at the opportunity for “reform” without taking more than a cursory glance at the measure itself.

It’s not often that the people of New York get to directly influence the law like this. But when we go to the polls on Tuesday, we should all vote no on Proposition One. We need to end gerrymandering, but this just won’t do it.

Eric Pesner is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at erp55@cornell.edu. Dems Discuss appears alternate Thursdays this semester.