TERRY GIPSON: GERRYMANDERING LESSONS IN OUR OWN BACKYARD
It’s only been around in its current form since 2012. Learning how it got here is key to helping voters understand how political parties in New York and other states have tried to take power away from them through gerrymandering. It’s called SD-46 and I live there.
The evolution of Senate District-46 is legendary among those that follow New York politics. It began in 2012 when Republican’s were in the majority and therefore controlled redistricting. (The U.S. Constitution requires that redistricting occur every ten years in conjunction with the census.) They put census and voter data into a computer and asked it to draw new election districts to give Republicans the strongest possible advantage over Democrats in the 2012 election and beyond. The computer showed them how to create a 63rd seat that Republicans could win, that’s what they did, and SD-46 was born.
It’s a perfect example of partisan gerrymandering, and absent any legal restrictions, it allows the party in power to draw election maps that favor their candidates. This has long-term national implications because state legislatures oversee redistricting for most U.S. Congressional districts. Critics call this election rigging because it allows politicians to pick their voters instead of the other way around. See how your senate district changed during the last round of redistricting.
Both Democrats and Republicans have engaged in this corrosive process all across the country. Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court made a disturbing ruling in a case where both parties had gerrymandered in North Carolina and Maryland. In a 5-4 decision, the Court’s conservative majority clarified that partisan gerrymandering is not something they’re going to prevent. They simply offered suggestions for states to consider.
Chief Justice John Roberts, Jr. suggested that “Independent Redistricting Commissions” are a way that states can draw fair election districts without looking to the courts for help. As a State Senator in 2013, I voted against a proposed constitutional amendment* to create an independent redistricting commission. “Why?”, you ask. Because I felt it was not actually, in effect, independent. It was poorly designed, dishonest, misleading, and did nothing more than offer cover to those who wanted to keep on gerrymandering.
For instance, the proposed amendment did not require the state legislature to approve any of the maps that were drawn by the commission**. If they didn’t like the commission’s maps, they could go back to drawing and approving their own maps, just like they always had. Most importantly, the members of this so-called “independent” commission were to be handpicked by partisan political leaders—the very people a truly independent commission would, by definition, not include. (The amendment was passed by the New York State Legislature and subsequently by public referendum. It became law in 2014)
The Supreme Court’s suggestions fall short of doing anything to stop state legislatures from drawing partisan districts. Instead, their ruling has reinvigorated the Republican Redistricting Majority Project, known as REDMAP. This should be exceedingly worrisome to Democrats.
REDMAP was launched prior to the 2010 election cycle. It was designed to build a Republican firewall through the redistricting process and pave the way for the GOP to retain a U.S. House majority in 2012. It worked because Republicans invested heavily in local elections and were able to win control of more state governments than Democrats in 2010. Thus, they controlled most of the 2012 redistricting and were able to draw the majority of lines for state seats (like SD-46) and congressional seats across the country to their advantage.
It was the successful execution of this strategy that helped Republicans maintain control of the U.S. House of Representatives through 2018. They’re already gearing up to win more state legislative seats in 2020 so they can REDMAP the country all over again in 2022.
Democrats have been slow to respond but now have the National Democratic Redistricting Committee. Unlike REDMAP, the NDRC was founded on the principles of creating fair election districts and ending gerrymandering. Like REDMAP, their strategy relies on winning more state legislative seats, something that the National Democratic Committee has not focused on in the past. In fact, Democrats have never tried to implement a coordinated nationwide strategy on the scale of REDMAP.
But, what should Democrats do now that the Supreme Court has essentially given political parties permission to gerrymander? Do they take the high road and stay focused on creating fair election districts and risk being defeated by REDMAP again? Or, do they engage Republicans in a head-to-head battle using a BLUEMAP strategy of their own?
One thing is for sure. Election districts are going to change and the people that we elect in 2020 are going to have an enormous influence on the process. Voters should be engaged because the new maps (absent intervention by the courts) could determine which party controls our state and federal governments and how much funding our local communities receive for vital programs and infrastructure projects.
There will be public hearings where voters can share their concerns about redistricting proposals in their communities. Voters should contact their local representatives to find out where they stand on redistricting and other issues that interest them. The most important thing people can do is to help motivate and inspire more voters to show up and vote in the 2020 elections.
Partisan gerrymandering relies on identifying both reliable voters (for the favored party) and unreliable voters (for the opposing party). Things don’t always work out as planned when those typically unreliable voters are actually motived to show up. That’s what happened in SD-46 in 2012. A Democrat won by just 18 votes in a district that had been gerrymandered specifically for one particular Republican candidate. Since then, however, those same voters have gone back to being unreliable for Democrats. That same Republican won the seat in 2014 and has held it ever since.
Countering the intended effect of gerrymandering is not an easy thing to do, but it can be done. 2020 offers voters new opportunities to show up, get involved, and fight for their rights to choose their representatives. And, who knows. Maybe voters will flip SD-46 back to blue once again.
* The Assembly bill to amend the constitution and the same as Senate bill.
** See Section 3, Line 8-12
Terry Gipson is a former State Senator from SD-41. He currently teaches Communications and Public Relations at SUNY New Paltz and Rensselaer Polytechnic University. Visit TerryGipsonNY.com to learn more.