Friday, 26 August 2011 00:00
From 1964 to 1966, Democrats and Republicans in the state Legislature fought a drawn-out legal battle over how New Yorkers should be represented in the state Legislature. The courts had thrown out most of the existing provisions in the State Constitution, which were designed to almost guarantee that Democrats would not control the state legislature by giving dozens of extra legislative districts to rural, Old Yankee Republican counties upstate. Over these two years, dozens of plans were presented, some of them radically different from what we have today. There were plans for multi-member districts and even no districts.
In December 1964, Republican staffers on an extreme deadline moved the desks and chairs out of Room 500-J of the State Capitol and laid out a giant street map of Nassau County. The map was 25-feet wide by 25-feet long and had population totals marked on each block. Slightly bigger than the room, the map actually curled up the walls.
This was the first time Nassau County had been gerrymandered in the way we think of modern ruthless district drawing. It was the first time anyone really divided the county up street by street, which was not part of the old system of apportioning districts by county. This was a new art. A few months later, Democrats rented a computer and had it programmed to draw lines based on pure mathematics, the first time this was ever done. It didn’t really work, but it was cool.
In 1966, Democrats had a majority in the Assembly and Republicans had a majority in the Senate. Democrats had controlled both the Senate and the Assembly in only three of the previous 70 years, so they decided that anything would be an improvement. They supported a “good government” non-partisan plan drawn up by academics, with beautifully-formed districts cut along highways and other recognizable borders. Senate Republicans showed up with their own highly partisan plan. The court tried to give both sides what they wanted. Democrats got their non-partisan plan for the Assembly and Republicans got their highly-partisan plan for the Senate.
The Assembly districts were drawn so fairly that Democrats lost control again in 1968. Republican control of the Senate continued for another 40 years.
Redistricting is an absolutely critical factor in determining who represents us. Sometimes, the repercussions can stretch out across decades.
Now in Nassau County, 76 days before there are supposed to be elections for the county Legislature, we have yet another meltdown in Mineola. Maybe the Republicans’ attempt to redraw districts for November will be upheld. Or not. We have to wait until next week, or later. It didn’t have to happen.
County Republicans have not explained why one provision in the county charter, requiring equal population districts, is now holy and inviolable, while other provisions, requiring commissions, public input and a minimum of public civility in the process, can be discarded completely. Republicans are concerned, suddenly, that small population shifts in the new Census make some districts a little uneven, which requires emergency correction.
The county population has changed by all of 4,142 people out of over 1.34 million. The population totals of most Nassau communities has been eerily stable, even in areas with high turnover and thousands of new residents.
The county legislature could have appointed a commission a year ago, holding hearings and meetings, waiting for the release of the Census figures to do its official work. It could have been professional and orderly. We don’t roll that way in Nassau County.
Politicians can’t hoard data in an age of instant information. Other localities have online interactive maps with full demographic data of all proposals. In some places, there were public contests for the best map plan.
In Nassau County, there aren’t any detailed maps. The county’s web site is silent on this entire fiasco. None of our business. The right of every citizen to run for office even without party support has been abrogated.
Nassau County has outgrown this. We have no time for it. County officials should announce that they had good intentions but they’re dropping this plan and moving past it. Just no time left.
Michael Miller is a freelance writer, designer and strategic consultant who has worked in state and local government. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org