Representatives of independent, nonpartisan “good government groups” are usually pretty much in accord with each other when it comes to advocating political reforms. But that wasn’t the case on Wednesday, October 22, when a debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of the Mid-Hudson Region was held at Deyo Hall in New Paltz between Dr. Gerald Benjamin of SUNY New Paltz’s Center for Research, Regional Education and Outreach (CRREO) and Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.
The topic was Proposition 1, a proposed constitutional amendment on the November 4 ballot that, if passed, will reform the way legislative districts are drawn after every census. Under the current system, the Legislature is responsible for establishing district lines and the process is controlled by the majorities in both houses, who draw the lines to their own advantage. If the amendment is approved, a ten-member redistricting commission will be established to determine lines for legislative districts (subject to approval by the state Legislature and the governor). Eight of the ten commission members will be appointed by the four state legislative leaders (two appointees each) with the remaining two members — neither affiliated with the Republican or Democratic party — chosen by the appointees. The commission would be established in 2021 (following the next census in 2020) and implemented in 2022.
Attempts to reform the redistricting process have been going on for decades. The issue of whether or not Proposition 1 can accomplish that reform has ignited dissent among members of civic watchdog organizations of late, but the debate between Dadey and Benjamin was cordial. Shared history in the cause clearly united the men to some degree, but while both agreed that redistricting reform is needed, their opinions as to how it should be accomplished were in direct opposition.
“I have no argument with the analysis of the problem,” said Benjamin, who is opposed to passage of the amendment. “We need greater competition in New York and we need fair elections. My quarrel is with the remedy for the problem.”
He questioned the wisdom of establishing a commission with an even number of members, maintaining it will perpetuate control of the process by partisan politics in putting the final decision in the hands of the Legislature. “It could be perceived that a deadlock would be encouraged, so that the Legislature could take back control of the process.”
Dadey spoke in favor of Proposition 1. “It will end the corrupt, rigged system that we currently have in this state, where district lines are drawn to advantage incumbents and discourage competition. Prop 1 creates a politically balanced commission on which lobbyists and political officials are not allowed to serve. It establishes new rules and tough standards that ensure impartiality and end partisan gerrymandering.”
He acknowledged that while the proposal is not a perfect solution, “We’ve got to start somewhere. We’ve gone 50 years without being able to change the redistricting process, and to vote this down because it’s not good enough, for the promise of something that we might get further down the road… I don’t get the sense of that logic. We’re creating something that holds the legislators responsible, and if we don’t act to take power back, we may never have this chance again.”
Benjamin countered, “We put bad reforms in the Constitution before. If you put a reform in the document that is insufficient, what happens is, over time, it becomes troublesome but you can’t change it. The argument that this is our last best chance is not an accurate argument. We have the potential for a Constitutional Convention, and we should take that opportunity and do this right.”
Dadey shook his head. “For the Constitution to be amended, it has to start with the Legislature. And to ask the Legislature to give up power over the very thing from which they draw power is a very difficult thing to achieve. The fact that we’ve been able to get this as far as we have is nothing short of a miracle… I want a better process too, but this amendment puts in place a new baseline that we can build upon… If this goes down, whoever is running the state in the next six to eight years, they’re not going to touch this issue. They’re going to walk away from this for generations.”
Benjamin disagreed. “If we pass this, we will be told that New York’s redistricting process has been reformed and we can move away from this issue for the foreseeable future.” And, he added, “This is not a building block. This is a result that we’ll have to live with for a long time.
“If this is the best that the Legislature can do… it’s proof that the Legislature does not want change. It’s proof that what the Legislature wants is to control this process, and they’ve written something in the guise of reform that does not produce reform,” he said. “It produces the perception of reform and it produces the argument that we’ve already made reform and consequently we don’t have to go further, and I don’t think that I want to arm the Legislature with that argument. That’s where I get off the train.”
A woman in the audience asked why the redistricting reform had to be accomplished through changing the state Constitution. “One hundred and eighty-four legislators pledged to pass a statute that would create an independent redistricting commission in 2011, and did not,” Dadey responded. “The only way we’re going to get the Legislature to abide by their promises to the people of this state that they’re going to enact reforms in redistricting is to put it into the Constitution, so they can’t not do it. Nearly 90 percent of them pledged to us that they were going to do this, and they didn’t… so, better lock it into the Constitution, to make sure we can have that reform made permanent. They are not going to voluntarily give up power.”
“Dick is quite right. Once you put something in there, it’s hard to change. That’s what I’m worried about.”
Proposition 1 will be found on the back of the ballot on November 4. For more information on races and candidates as well as ballot proposals, visit www.vote411.org.