Thursday, October 11, 2007

Sorry Kids, Redistricting is for Big People!

If you ask anyone that knew me as a kid, they'd tell you I was very inquisitive. I'd ask my grandmother why I couldn't take her car to the playground instead of my big wheel; I'd bug my dad about why I didn't get to eat his Pepperidge Farm cookies with the macadamia nuts and big chocolate chunks and had to stick to Fudge Stripes, and routinely asked to take my mom's bike which had ten speeds instead of my bike, which had, And as anyone might guess, I heard a lot of the oft-repeated parental refrain: "(Insert desired items here) are for big people."

Citizens of New York have lobbied for years to take redistricting out of the hands of the big people (i.e., legislators) and give it to the little guys (i.e., not legislators). Sort of like Kid Nation, but without the blurry child labor regulations. Opposing this transfer in power, William Parment claims that the current system is preferable to an independent commission (not comprised of legislators) drawing state legislative and Congressional lines, in part because legislators are more accountable to their constituents. This immediately reminded me of my Dad's rationale that my palate was not at the level needed to truly enjoy those macadamia nuts, and therefore, no cookie for me. Both lines of reasoning (my dad's less sound) mask the motivations of self-interested persons to maintain their grip on power (or higher quality baked goods).

Last year, Justin Levitt and I testified on New York’s redistricting process before the state legislature, providing us a wonderful opportunity to speak candidly about the pros and cons of the current system. Though we extolled the many virtues of our bi-partisan, bi-cameral gerrymander, we failed to utter the words “ increased accountability” in conjunction with “legislators drawing lines.” We did say things like “insulate their districts from effective challenge” and “choosing their constituents,” however.

Parment is right that people need to have their voices heard, and that incumbency, by itself, is not “an evil”. But he’s wrong to suggest that legislative control of redistricting does anything to benefit “the people”. Incumbency is an evil in a system where legislators can manipulate lines to ensure themselves of re-election, thereby rendering elections pointless. Further, I’m skeptical that installing a commission of non-interested persons from across the state with numerous opportunities for public input would be any less effective than legislative control of redistricting at channeling the will of the people, especially since even lawmakers with the purest of motives have tremendous incentives to ignore the public good and create a district that they can win in. Indeed, it’s more likely that voters’ wishes are conflated (however accidentally) with the electoral ambitions of a given legislator, as my Grandma's interest in not having her car totaled by a six-year old was conflated with her "interest" in my "safety". Ok, maybe she was right about that one.

Nonetheless, this opposition seems more like protecting one's cookies than protecting one's car. Like sound parenting, representative democracy is among our country’s greatest institutions, but we shouldn’t pretend that that pristine ideal does anything to influence the ugly reality that is New York’s redistricting process.

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