Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hooray for...Albany?

The lights in Hollywood shine a little bit brighter on Oscar night, but who knew how much light they would cast on New York? Notwithstanding NY native Martin Scorcese’s victories for Best Picture and Best Director, several parallels can be drawn between the Academy Awards and New York’s political process. The state legislature, like the Academy, has voting practices viewed by outsiders as mysterious, if not secretive. Reform efforts have been ushered stage-right like an Oscar winner who’s thanked a few too many people in a rambling speech. And the incumbency advantage of elected officials combined with their control of redistricting ensures that, like the awards show, that though the outfits change in the legislature, the people wearing them rarely do.

Eileen Markey’s article in City Limits alludes to another parallel. The majority of our state's prisoners come from downstate (New York City), but virtually all the state's prisons are upstate. More importantly, those prisoners are counted as "residents" of upstate towns in the decennial census, but they are unable to vote. Thus, for the purposes of reapportionment and redistricting in NY, prisoners are like seat fillers at the Oscars: they give districts the appearance of being full, but they have absolutely no clout.

This practice has meaningful economic and political consequences. The resources diverted to districts upstate do little to aid prisoners, while the actual residents get a disproportionately large slice of the pie. In turn, less money is directed to downstate districts that already lack resources and support returning prisoners upon their release. Politically, this method has favored Republicans, who are heavily concentrated upstate. By allocating prisoners up north, redistricters respecting one-person/one-vote doctrine must create more districts upstate; these puffed-up districts have tended to elect GOP candidates.

There are simple ways to change New York’s method of counting prisoners. Some states simply do not count prisoners when redistricting. Others, including Sen. Eric Schneiderman have proposed creating a database with the last known addresses of prisoners, and counting them there. Either proposal would bring more fairness to the system and help end the current practice in NY which heaps insult onto injury: not only are prisoners being used for partisan gain, but their home districts suffer as well. Or, put another way, not only are they little more than nominees with no chance at a statue, they're left without the coveted swag too.

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