Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today announced the Redistricting Reform Act of 2011 to establish an Independent Redistricting Commission to permanently reform how congressional and state legislative districts lines are drawn in New York.
The Redistricting Reform Act delivers unprecedented transparency and independence to a process that has been widely criticized for placing political considerations that protect incumbent office-holders and partisan objectives above the public's interest in fair and equal representation.
Under Governor Cuomo's proposal, the commission will hold extensive public hearings across the state and post its redistricting plans and corresponding data on the Internet. Provisions in the bill require that the commission is bi-partisan, reflects the state's diversity, and is free from any conflicts of interest.
"Redistricting in New York is a system that has prioritized incumbency and partisan interests over democratic representation," Governor Cuomo said. "This process needs to be about the people and not the politics. To help restore faith in our State government, we need to reform the system. This bill ensures greater independence, transparency, and a commitment to fair representation and equality."
Edward I. Koch, former Mayor of the City of New York and founder of NY Uprising said, "I am pleased that Governor Cuomo is upholding his promise to institute comprehensive redistricting reform, and I expect every lawmaker who signed the NY Uprising pledge to do the same. This legislation would replace the current 'incumbent protection program' and partisan gerrymandering with a system based on independence, sound criteria, and greater citizen involvement. I urge the Legislature to move quickly and pass this long overdue reform."
During the last election cycle, thanks to the work of former Mayor Koch and organizations focused on the need for reform, Governor Cuomo and a majority of legislators in both the Senate and Assembly signed pledges declaring their support for independent redistricting reform.
In addition, Governor Cuomo has pledged that if an agreement on permanent reform of the redistricting process is not reached, he will veto the redistricting plans passed by the Legislature if those plans have been developed under the existing process and prioritize partisan and incumbent interests over the voters' interests.
Under Governor Cuomos proposal, the members of the Independent Redistricting Commission would be chosen by the legislative leaders from a bi-partisan pool of qualified candidates that reflects the state's geographic, racial, ethnic, and gender diversity. That pool would be chosen by a bi-partisan nominations committee selected by the executive and legislative branches. At each step of the appointments process, the decision-makers must consult with organizations devoted to protecting minority and other voters' rights and must adhere to criteria to ensure the independence of those who draw the lines.
Requirements for service include being at least four years removed from being a member of the Legislature or Congress, a legislative or executive chamber employee, a political party official, or a registered lobbyist.
The commission would be required to hold a series of public hearings throughout the state. Prior to its first hearing, it would post on its Web site extensive information concerning the plans under development and the data involved in order to facilitate public review, assessment, and critique, and the development of alternative plans.
After public hearings, the Legislature would approve or disapprove the commission's plans without amendments. If the proposal is rejected, the Commission would submit an amended proposal after hearing the reasons given by the Legislature regarding the first plan's rejection at a public hearing. The second plan would be voted on by the Legislature, again without amendments. If the second proposal is also rejected, the Commission would submit a third plan following further hearings. The third plan would be subject to amendments that must comply with specific criteria, including the protection of minority voting rights, and could not affect more than two percent of the population of any district.
If the courts are called upon to review the current district lines and the redistricting plans being considered, this bill would require that the court assess which plan most faithfully serves the criteria set forth below as part of its determination. Together with the other protections in the bill, this provision would help to ensure that the district lines that are ultimately adopted reflect the independence, concern for minority voting rights, and attention to equal representation that the commission would provide.
The Commissions redistricting plans would be drawn according to the following requirements, subject to the requirements of state and federal law:
- All congressional districts shall be as nearly equal in population as practicable;
- Districts shall be contiguous;
- Districts shall not be established that are intended to or result in a denial or abridgement of minority voting rights including the opportunity of minority voters to participate in the political process, and to elect the candidates of their choice, including but not limited to minority populations with the opportunity to elect the candidates of their choice without comprising a majority of the district; and
- Districts shall not be drawn with an intent to favor or oppose any political party, any incumbent, or any previous or presumed candidate for office;
Subject to the requirements above and those of state and federal law, all redistricting plans would be drawn according to the following principles:
- To the extent practicable, the most and least populous senate and assembly districts shall not exceed the mean population of districts for each house by more than one percent;
- Districts shall unite communities of interest;
- To the extent practicable, counties and county subdivisions shall not be divided in the formation of districts; and
- To the extent practicable, villages shall not be divided in the formation of districts.
Blair Horner, NYPIRG Legislative Director, said, "Governor Cuomo's redistricting proposal is a significant step toward ending the practice of 'gerrymandered' elections. The governor's redistricting plan includes critical reforms such as creating an independent redistricting commission as well as eliminating the ability of mapmakers to rig district lines to benefit incumbents and legislative majorities. NYPIRG urges the legislature to act quickly to approve these reforms."
Dick Dadey, Executive Director of Citizens Union, said, "Governor Cuomo has taken an historic step no other New York State governor has ever taken, that of introducing his own proposed bill to end partisan gerrymandering and reform the way in which congressional and legislative districts lines are drawn. His proposal turns an important campaign promise he made to New Yorkers into a welcomed governing commitment. Citizens Union applauds and supports the Governor's early action to seek needed independence to the redistricting process that would stop the decades-old practice of politically manipulating the maps for partisan advantage. We look forward to working with him and reform-minded legislators to achieve this needed paradigm shift and change how democracy is practiced in New York State."
Susan Lerner, Executive Director of Common Cause NY, said, "New York is long overdue for a redistricting process that will focus on what is best for voters and not incumbents or purely partisan interests. Governor Cuomo's Redistricting Reform Act is a comprehensive piece of legislation that sets up an independent commission and objective line-drawing criteria to ensure independence and fair representation for all New Yorkers, including minority voters. Common Cause/NY supports this bill and hopes that the legislature acts quickly in the best interests of their constituents to pass it."
Sally Robinson, Issues and Advocacy Vice President for the League of Women Voters of New York State, said, "Redistricting reform has recently been the focus of League forums throughout the state. We applaud the Governor for taking this important step and we encourage the Legislature to act quickly to pass this legislation into law."
Erika Wood, Director of the Brennan Center's Redistricting & Representation Project, said, "In the past, New York legislative districts have often reflected sophisticated calculations executed in the back-room far from the public eye. The secrecy has allowed legislators to manipulate the process in a way that sometimes harms New York communities, and undermines fair and equal representation in our government. Governor's Cuomo's proposal will open up the process and allow for public engagement. The newly formed redistricting commission will provide the relevant data and software to the public, require a series of public hearings to be held throughout the state, encourage public comment and input, and require the commission to answer questions, consider alternative proposals, and explain the rationale for its final proposed plan. The Redistricting Reform Act also includes important provisions to assure that the new districts provide minority voters throughout the state the opportunity to elect candidates of their choice. And it instructs the commission to recognize and preserve cohesive communities with shared interests whenever possible. We look forward to working with the Governor and the legislature to develop these proposals. We urge them to conduct a careful, open and public review of this legislation, consulting with experts, advocates and citizens throughout the state, to make it a redistricting model for other states across the country."