Stalking the wild gerrymander

NY-19: Not very monstrous, even with a little artistic license

I love reading about the Catskills in national media. It’s always a roller coaster of emotions. First there’s the thrill of mattering: hey, they noticed us! Then there’s the small, petty pleasure of picking out the locals you know personally, and judging them on how they well they acquitted themselves to Big Media. And finally, the inevitable yawp of rage, when you get to the stone cold error.

Last week we got our fifteen minutes in Rolling Stone, in which brogressive wunderkind Matt Taibbi is writing a series on the 19th Congressional District. Here’s where I yawped:

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“Seemingly gerrymandered to be a safely red district, it features an enrollment advantage of somewhere north of 6,100 votes for the Republicans,” Taibbi writes. (Ah, “seemingly.” I like how he put that weasel word in there.)

“Gerrymandered”? God help us, “safely red”? You’d think after losing a seven-figure defamation suit to a University of Virginia administrator, they’d hire some fact-checkers over at Rolling Stone. If Republicans had set out to draw the 19th to secure a safe seat for John Faso, they could hardly have done a worse job.

Taibbi calls the 19th a “demographic Frankenstein,” for good measure — either because he thinks rural areas are shambling undead revenants, or because he just likes monster metaphors. He once memorably described Goldman Sachs as a “vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity,” so maybe it’s the latter.

To understand why Taibbi’s claim is so ridiculous, you’ll have to know a little bit about how the district got drawn in the first place. Congressional districts get redrawn every ten years, following on the heels of the U.S. Census. The New York State map drawn in 2012 shrank the number of districts in the state from 29 to 27, eliminating Maurice Hinchey’s 22nd and Bob Turner’s 9th in the process.

In a normal redistricting year, the New York state legislature draws the boundaries of the new districts, with Republicans in the Senate and Democrats in the Assembly jockeying for turf and doing their utmost to protect incumbents. It’s a terrible system, rife with abuse, and good-government groups have been calling for an independent redistricting process for decades.

But that’s not what happened in 2012. Our current Congressional districts were drawn by a panel of federal judges, who stepped in after the state Senate and Assembly deadlocked over the redistricting process.

In a nation plagued with rampant partisan turf protection, the judicial process that produced New York’s Congressional districts was a welcome respite from gerrymandering. Having been drawn by thoughtful nonpartisans instead of territorial carnivores, our new Congressional districts are a good deal more compact and less geographically whimsical than the ones they replaced.

Several of the current districts, including our own 19th, are significantly more competitive than their predecessors. If you want to see what a safe Republican district looks like, have a glance at the old 20th district, the one Chris Gibson represented before winning election in the new 19th. Whiter and significantly more Republican than the new 19th, the old 20th was so well-defended by partisan geography that Congressman John Sweeney once boasted that no Republican could ever lose it.

Even with a fair, nonpartisan process, not all districts are going to be competitive. If there were three MAGA-stickered pickups to every Prius in the 19th, that wouldn’t be terribly surprising — this is, after all, upstate New York. But the idea that the 19th is a safe district for Republicans is laughable on its face.

In declaring a Republican advantage in the 19th district, Taibbi is citing a story by our own Jesse Smith, a reporter for Ulster Publishing. Back in 2016, with a Congressional election on the horizon, Smith reported that Republicans in the 19th had an advantage of 6,175 votes. Technically, Democrats outnumber Republicans in the district, but I can’t argue with his logic: he’s counting Conservative voters for the Republicans, and Working Families for the Democrats, which is fair.

Here’s the thing, though: It hardly matters. The 19th is balanced on the edge of a knife. Out of more than 460,000 registered voters in the district, an advantage of some 6,000 votes is barely north of a percent. What’s more, the gap between the parties is narrowing: If you look at the most recent statistics from the state Board of Elections, Republicans and Conservatives outnumber Democrats and Working Families voters in the district by just 3,065.

That’s less than the enrollment gap in my own Delaware County, where Republican-inclined voters outnumber Democrats by 4,799. With only 28,616 registered voters in the county, that’s one hell of a handicap for the Dems to overcome. But who did Delaware County voters go for in the recent Assembly District special election? Surprisingly enough, it was the Democrat, Aidan O’Connor — proving that in this contrary little corner of the politosphere, anything can happen.

So Rolling Stone got it wrong. So what? Why does it matter? Well, because I’m a crank who gets het up over trivial facts in the newspaper. But also: This isn’t the first time I’ve had this argument.

I hear local complaints that the 19th is gerrymandered all the time. Mostly, they’re coming from Democrats in Maurice Hinchey’s old 22nd District — a truly fantastical creature that once stretched a narrow tentacle all the way across the Southern Tier to grasp the Dem-leaning voters of Ithaca. And they say irony is dead!

It’s ludicrous to argue that the 19th is rigged for Republicans, but I can see why it’s psychologically attractive. There’s a certain compelling fatalism in believing that the map has been drawn against you. If you think the fix is already in, and all the important decisions have already been made in some back room where it happens, you’re off the hook for having to do the hard work.

Uncertainty isn’t easy. Neither is living with your neighbors. But consider the alternative: returning to our old life in a Democratic moated keep, surrounded by equally fortified GOP feudal fiefdoms, untroubled by anything so messy as real elections. There are a lot of doors for us all to knock on between now and November, and that’s a good thing.

Editor’s note: See the enrollment makeup of the 19th, and all the rest of New York’s congressional districts at
https://www.elections.ny.gov/NYSBOE/enrollment/congress/congress_apr18.pdf

There are 3 comments

  1. alex p.

    People just aren’t very well informed. And it’s worse when they think they are. I would guess if someone knows the term “gerrymander” they’re probably more likely to falsely believe this district has been gerrymandered vs. your average person.

    A little learning is a dangerous thing ;
    Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring :
    There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
    And drinking largely sobers us again.

  2. mr

    You overstate your case in a few ways.

    1) In 2013 magistrate judges redistricted NY in about two weeks. By law they are supposed to take existing counties into account “as much as is practicable.” The so-called “compactness” of current NY districts is directly at odds with the principle of maintaining counties as communities of interest.

    2) You don’t gerrymander to create solid-bloc partisan fortresses. The strategy is to create a district that gathers a substantial minority *all in one place* that can be consistently beaten. That’s exactly what happens in the 19th. Whether by intention or accident, the 19th contains a deep concentration of left wing voters on the west side of the river who will predictably be outnumbered on the east side. If a congressional district were drawn using county boundaries and a more natural understanding of communities of interest, more progressive voters in Ulster would outnumber more conservative ones in the surrounding counties. As it stands, almost all of the progressives in the area are in the 19th and will be consistently outnumbered by voters in Dutchess.

    3) You are only looking at party registration, which is going to be much less of a predictor than actual results from last cycle. The 19th is Trump country and Faso outperformed Trump, not just among registered Republicans. Most Republicans I know with half a brain are also registered as Democrats. Since we’re a closed primary state, if you live in the 19th (or even just care about gubernatorial elections) and see the embarrassment of riches that will be the Democratic primary, your best shot as a conservative voter would be to maintain Democratic registration.

  3. JamaicaonHudson

    I’m the opposite of the writer, as I can’t stand when the national news media mentions this area. They, despite having enviable budgets, almost never spend it researching the area properly and make broad, sweeping generalizations. This often presents a skewed, inaccurate, and (often) idiotic picture of complex and interesting place that superlatives do no justice. So, yeah, I cringe when “our name is in they mouth”.
    Unfortunately, the Rolling Stone piece was no different—rife with inaccuracies, and those aforementioned broad, sweeping generalizations…Truthfully, full disclaimer, I hated it. From the title—Battle for Woodstock (as if the 19th fit neatly within that town’s borders)—to the overly simplistic description of the district. Tiabbi was wrong on many levels (even misspelling “Duchess” County and providing an image of a Trump rally in Woodstock, Virginia): He did not understand the district, clearly did not research it to the degree needed and, thus, delivered a story in which that was painfully obvious. The article was basically sensationalistic, slanted, clap-trap meant to titillate the “Reads at an 8th-Grade level” set. Oddly, since Penske’s scion bought a controlling stake in Rolling Stone, there’s been an uptick of such hastily-written/poorly-researched stories. I can only surmise that, once Penske’s check cleared, staff reporters were on notice to produce more content which would appeal to both NASCAR fans and Wharton billionaires. Since I am neither, I don’t relish reading it.
    That said, while being technically incorrect regarding gerrymandering, Tiabbi does touch on a very real sentiment held by many in this newly-formed district. While the judiciary, not politicians, decided our new boundaries—it felt like the district was manipulated to favor one party. The problem is which one it favors depends on who you ask…For those that were happy with our moated Blue Haven, the thought of being carved up and fused to one of the reddest “fiefdoms” in Upstate New York was ridiculous. I’m sure that sentiment applied to those in Red-topia as well. In anycase, the judiciary (composed of, I believe, two Republicans and one and a half Democrats) gave life to their creation, then (seemingly) disappeared in a puff of purple smoke. After which, yes, the lines were redrawn—but Roanne Mann’s work was more akin to Victor Frankenstein than King Solomon… And, thus, we lived unhappily ever after—a bourgie Vegan and a subsistence hunter—shackled together like “The Defiant Ones”.

    Were we gerrymandered? No. However, we were shafted. Like, royally.

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