Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Barnyard Animals and Redistricting Reform

Back in high school, my father coached my AAU basketball team- a hodgepodge of players who were just good enough to get invited to tournaments, where we would then get manhandled by teams with actual talent. We had very little size, but we played solid, scrappy defense. Unfortunately, we didn't get a lot of rebounds. This incensed my dad, whose primary coaching tool was screaming "BOX!" (as in "box out") as loudly as possible, whenever a shot would go up.

One day, after a particularly disappointing game, he told us the story of some barnyard animals who avoided all of the tasks necessary to prepare a meal for themselves, yet they still wanted to partake in the feast. The protagonist, Henny Penny, would ask them all "Who will pick the grain?" or "Who will knead the dough?", and animals like Lucy Goosey and Turkey Lurkey would summarily reply, "Not I!" Henny Penny was left to do all of the work, but, predictably, the other animals were more than happy to dig in once it was time to eat. The goal of the story was to point out our team's reluctance to do the grunt work that needed to be done (i.e, rebounding), even though all of us wanted to reap the rewards of victory.

Enter Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton. Her guest column on redistricting in the Ithaca Journal illustrates how Henny Penny and Turkey Lurkey are sometimes the same creature. The beginning of her piece is in the Henny Penny mold, presenting some important considerations and questions for redistricting reform, including compliance with Voting Rights Act, respecting communities of interest, etc.

But these considerations begin to sound more like excuses that undermine reform as the article goes on. For instance, Lifton wonders aloud whether we could find non-partisans "who would be willing to take on the complex task" of redrawing the boundaries for New York's Congressional and state legislative districts, even though 2.3 million New Yorkers are not registered to any political party. And she struggles to understand how an independent commission might be structured (as if one must be adopted out of whole cloth) ignoring the fact that such commissions already exist elsewhere. In short, it's as if she's premptively saying "Not I!", a la Turkey Lurkey.

In fairness, I have no trouble with being cautious on redistricting reform; we should be wary of recreating the current structure that keeps the power to draw district lines, in essence, with the legislature. Similarly, we must ensure that minority communities get a fair shake. However, those who are facilitating the discussion should, at the very least, present redistricting reform as an issue with obstacles and substantial benefits, not simply highlighting the negatives. Had Henny Penny pitched the work as back-breaking labor to produce a meal that was "pedestrian" or "lacking inspiration", the story wouldn't make any sense. Who's going to give up a day of frolicking on the farm for that?

The Brennan Center salutes any and all who support meaningful and effective redistricting reform, including Assemblywoman Lipton. But we hope said supporters are converting more of our state's Turkey Lurkeys into Henny Pennys, and not the other way around.

No comments: