A Few Thoughts on Reapportionment
As we all know, the figures are out and everyone with the software is free to draw their own fantasy reapportionment maps.
Me, I’d prefer to concentrate on realities, and my intent is to dwell upon them, no matter how unpleasant, as I embark upon an occasional series on the topic of Redistricting.
There are, among the more liberal precincts, those who believe that if only we had a “fair” reapportionment, whatever that means, “progressive” politics would finally be allowed its long overdue triumph and we’d all be eating strawberries and cream and liking them, too.
Me, I’m on a low cholesterol diet.
Foremost on this year’s “progressive” agenda is reapportionment “reform” pushed by likes of that great “progressive” Ed Koch.
Most of the talk is naturally concentrated on the area where reform would have the least impact: Congress.
It would have the least impact because the accepted model of a non or bi-partisans commission would probably not yield a dramatically different result than that of the status quo.
This is because of two things; the law and the facts on the ground.
The facts on the ground are that each party controls a house of the legislature, and with the state losing two seats, each party will surely have to swallow one. The other crucial fact on the ground is where the bodies are.
As to the law, the Voting Rights Act ensures that some districts are more equal than others.
Further, case law for Congressional Districts requires that a State’s Congressional districts all be within an eyelash of mathematical equality. One can be creative with a map, but if the numbers dictate that Upstate loses a seat, it is awfully hard to stretch the borders of every Upstate district to dictate otherwise.
A commission might chose different victims and neater borders than the legislative process, but ultimately the party, race and approximate region of each of the victims is pretty pre-ordained no matter what the process.
The really interesting creativity takes place in the drawing the legislature.
The Voting Rights Act is still in place, and the numbers are the numbers, but the opportunity for play is a lot more liberal.
Each party controls its own house, and traditionally, that party, within the constraints of case law and the VRA, can do whatever the fuck it pleases in exchange for which it lets the other party do the same in its own bailiwick.
Crucially, the case law is different.
Instead of mathematical equality, there is a more flexible standard at the State and local level of a 5% variance from the mean population (i.e, a 10% deviance between the samllest and the largest district).
This flexibility theoretically allows respect to be paid to traditional considerations like Municipal and County lines.
To some extent this is true.
For instance, in New York City, only one Assembly District crosses a county boarder, and then only because there was no other way to meet the 5% requirement.
But the flexibility also allows for abuse.
In the Senate, virtually every Republican District is drawn at almost the mathematical minimum and virtually every Democratic District is drawn at the mathematical maximum. The results in a net transfer of seats from the City to Upstate.
In the Assembly, seats in counties which tend to produce Democrats tend to have lower population thresholds than those which produce Republicans. This results in a net transfer of seats to the City from other places.
“Reformers” like Koch and Governor Cuomo have asked for a more exacting standard of a one percent variance from the mean instead.
This is still far less exacting than the standard for Congressional Districts.
Let’s see how that would work.
I will presume for this discussion that the State will abandon the effort to allocate prisoners in State penal institutions to their home districts, because absent a Democratic majority, the Senate will never pass any reapportionment bill which is based upon that provision.
Since the Assembly would rather forsake this provision than forsake its opportunity to draw its own districts, and no one wants instead to trust the job to a Court-appointed master certain to be chosen in case of a legislative deadlock, I believe my assumption is a safe one.
Now let’s look at the numbers as they relate to the City.
There were 19,378,102 people counted by the census bureau in New York State. Though we all know there are many more, unequally distributed, we are stuck with these number, so stop whining about them.
Divided by 150 Assembly seats, that leaves us a mean of 129,187 per district.
Under the 5% standard the population of each seat may range anywhere between 122,728 and 135,646.
Under the one percent standard, the range would be from 127,895 to 130,478.
The difference between a variance of less than 3,000 and one of almost 13,000, when concentrated disproportionately in certain areas, amounts to a wholesale dilution of the voting rights of many people.
Let me show you how it will work.
Using the mean, Brooklyn has enough people for 19.39 seats.
Currently, it has 20 and shares another with Staten Island.
Staten Island has enough people for 3.63 seats (about the number it has now).
There’s no way to give Staten Island four seats of its own. Doing so would produce districts of just over 117,000, which is far beyond the permissible 5%. Giving them three would produce seats of over 156,000, which just would not do.
Therefore they must be linked with a contiguous County. This means either Kings or New York, though I suppose one could make an argument that Breezy Point is also contiguous.
It seems quite likely the Assembly will maintain the status quo, and create a joint Brooklyn/Staten Island District.
And who can disagree that continuity and proximity by ground transportation are not legitimate non-partisan standards worthy of consideration?
Together, Brooklyn and Staten Island are entitled to 23.02 seats. If we drew the combined area 23 districts, each district would contain approximately 129,280 people, almost perfectly within the mean.
But that’s not gonna happen.
Those counties currently account for 24 seats; using the 5% standard, one could instead draw 24 seats with a mean of 123,893 people, which is legally permissible.
That is what is gonna happen.
Thus, Brooklyn steals a seat to which it is not entitled by its population.
I wonder how many Brooklyn “progressives” are willing to go around the Borough and speak at even the most liberal political clubs to explain why their loss of an Assembly seat would be a good government measure.
I'm not volunteering, and I support the reform.Queens currently has 18 Assembly members. Its population entitles it to 17.27. If we drew 17 seats in Queens, the mean would be 131,219, which is just over the 1% standard. However, we could fix that by remedying what Farouk Samaroo calls the “gerrymandering” of the South Asian community in South Queens (accomplished by the British colonial authorities when they drew the county borders) by moving their small enclave to a Brooklyn-based district.
However, that’s not gonna happen.
Queens currently accounts for 18 seats; using the 5% standard, one could instead draw 18 seats with a mean of 123,929 people, which is legally permissible.
That is what is gonna happen.
Thus, Queens steals a seat to which it is not entitled by its population.
Manhattan is entitled to 12.28 seats and will get 12 (its current number); The Bronx is entitled to 10.72 seats and will get 11 (also its current number); it is not mathematically possible in either case to steal another seat and stay within the 5%, so it won’t be done.
Isn’t stealing two seats enough for any City?
In the Senate things get even more creative.
The Assembly’s 150 seats are set by the State Constitution. The Constitution sets the number of Senate seats by a formula which can no longer be applied as written because of intervening Court decisions.
As a result, there are two competing constitutionally permissible methods of interpreting that formula.
Only three people in the State of New York understand exactly how these competing methods work, and one of them has retired and spends his time attending the opera and sending me notes about proof-reading errors in my columns.
The Courts have deferred to the legislature, meaning they’ve deferred to the Senate, in interpreting that formula.
The Senate has changed its interpretation every ten years, depending upon how many seats best suits its political needs.
In the last three reapportionments we’ve gone from 60 seats to 62, using different formulas in different years.
No one knows what the Senate’s magical mathematical alchemist will determine is the correct formula next year, but we do know that if the Courts follow past precedent, they will likely just throw up their hands, when throwing up their guts would be a more appropriate result.
All we can really assume about the Senate is that the Republicans will likely use all available means to protect its members and their allies, and to create new opportunities.
So, I will assume that in some way the City will get robbed again.
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