This seems obvious, but apparently our state lawmakers in Albany need a jarring reminder: Don't abuse your power by redrawing district lines to your own advantage.
The 2010 census determined that New York will lose two of its 29 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, so those lines need to be redrawn. Also, state Senate and Assembly districts will have to change as population shifts between various parts of the state - partly due to a wrong-headed new law that now counts prison inmates as living where they used to live before they were incarcerated rather than where they actually are.
Anyway, the old redistricting method is patently crooked: Lawmakers get together and draw their own districts with the goal of creating safe havens for the current politicians so they and their party-mates can get re-elected over and over.
Current U.S. House of Representatives districts
(Map from the U.S. Department of the Interior)
Current New York Assembly districts (Note: Those along lakes Ontario and Erie include some water areas.)
Current New York Senate districts (Note: Those along lakes Ontario and Erie include some water areas.)
New York's current congressional districts, at left, are compared with a draft map of what they could look like, by bdistricting.com.
What New York's Assembly districts could look like, according to bdistricting.com.
What New York's Senate districts could look like, according to bdistricting.com.
Because of that and the fact that every district has to encompass roughly the same number of people, we have some pretty bizarrely shaped districts.
New York's 20th Congressional District, for instance, is gerrymandered to be a Republican stronghold; it makes sure to avoid the majority-Democrat urban centers of Albany and Poughkeepsie, winding through rural areas all the way north to Lake Placid and west toward Binghamton. With so many more registered Republicans than Democrats, it was truly remarkable when Kirsten Gillibrand won here twice in a row this past decade.
Meanwhile, the 22nd and 28th districts are Democrats' paradises: The 28th catches each of Buffalo and Rochester's urban centers, stretching between them along the edge of Lake Ontario. The 22nd crosses the Hudson River only for downtown Poughkeepsie, then has this crazy arm that manages to reach through Binghamton all the way to the liberal college town of Ithaca.
State Assembly and Senate districts have some equally weird shapes.
Of course it's wrong for insiders to game the system in order to protect themselves from getting voted out. It's corrupt, it's undemocratic, and it's unnecessary. It's a problem other places have fixed and which our state and nation should have fixed long ago.
Canada, for example, used to have a partisan redistricting process like ours but reformed it in 1964 with the Electoral Boundaries Readjustment Act. Nonpartisan commissions, one for each province, redraw the lines of parliamentary ridings after each 10-year census. Each commission contains three members: one picked by the province's chief judge and two appointed by Canada's apolitical speaker of the house.
"No person is eligible to be a member of a commission while that person is a member of the Senate or House of Commons or is a member of a legislative assembly or legislative council of a province," the act says.
Here's your model, New York. Easy.
The only people who really object to this are the incumbents who benefit from the current system.
We in northeastern New York need our state representatives, Sen. Betty Little and Assemblywomen Janet Duprey and Teresa Sayward, to support such a plan actively and repeatedly, in public and in the Capitol's back rooms.
There are draft maps out there of what New York's political districts might look like with fair redistricting (for example, the ones on Boston software engineer Brian Olson's bdistricting.com open-source website, linked to at right). They're wonderfully blocky and boring, unlike the gnarly-looking maps we have now.