State government in New York is a mess as evidenced by budget deficits and ethical scandals that have led to resignations, indictments and expulsions of elected officials. A big part of the problem in New York State is that it is a rare occasion for a state legislator to have a competitive election. Most legislators know that they will almost never be voted out of office. Without competition legislators become arrogant and out of touch with the public, all that matters is catering to special interest needs and the money that special interests provide.
A huge factor in why so few incumbent legislators ever lose an election is how legislative district boundary lines are drawn every ten years. The process of redistricting after every census is controlled by legislators who make sure that districts are solidly Democratic or Republican in enrollment. The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) in 2006 did a study of legislative districts and found that only 25 of the 212 legislative districts (11 percent) have close enrollments. The populations of the other 187 districts favor one party or another by a wide margin. The average Senate district has an enrollment advantage of 51,830 enrollees. The average Assembly district as an enrollment advantage of 23,233 enrollees. Overcoming such an advantage in party votes is virtually impossible, which is why so few legislators ever lose an election.
In 2008 more than half of the 212 legislators in the Senate and Assembly won with more than 80 percent of the vote, fifty-seven ran unopposed, according to the NYPIRG. The average senator has served for nearly seven two-year terms. A study of 2002 legislative elections by the National Conference of State Legislatures, found that only two states had senates with a lower turnover rate than New York. Only three statehouses had lower turnover rates than the New York Assembly.
In November of 2008, California voters approved Proposition 11, which took the power away from elected officials to draw state legislative district lines and turned it over to citizens. Districts set by citizens will take effect after the 2010 U.S. Census. In an amazingly open process California is seeking applicants to serve on an independent citizens redistricting commission through the We Draw the Lines web site.
The requirements for prospective commission members are: they must be registered voters, affiliated with a single party for five years prior to their application, have voted in recent elections, and are free from conflicts as prescribed in Prop 11, such as to not be registered lobbyists, elected officials, or have contributed more than $2,000 to a political candidate in recent years.
31,000 people have taken the time to submit an initial application to be considered as a commission member. About 4,700 applications tentatively have been rejected for failing to meet conflict-of-interest or other basic standards, such as voting in at least two of the past three statewide general elections. On the We Draw the Lines web site, you can view the names of the people who are in the applicant pool and you can even comment on applicants.
The 14 member commission will be made up of 5 Democrats, 5 Republicans and 4 people who are not affiliated as Democrats or Republicans. The details of how the selection of redistricting commissioners occurs can be viewed on the WDTL site.
One of the biggest hurdles to removing incumbent legislators who are bought and paid for by special interests is the fact that most elections are not competitive due to the partisan way district lines are created. I like the approach being utilized in California and it will be interesting to see the end results.
What do you think about how California is redistricting state legislative districts and would you support such an effort in New York State?