Your Most Important Vote this November is Hidden on the Second Page of the Ballot

Partisan gerrymandering — incumbents drawing legislative districts to keep control of legislative bodies — destroys democracy by assuring that majorities don’t rule. It has been described as elected officials choosing their voters, instead of their voters choosing their representatives. 

At the national, state and local levels our governments are made undemocratic by gerrymandering; despite widespread protest, those in power in both major parties keep doing it so that they can stay in power. Repeated efforts to get the U.S. Supreme Court to undo this practice have failed, though surely it is unconstitutional.

What most people in Ulster County may not know is that we are among the handful of places in the country that doesn’t have this problem. That’s because our county charter gives us a process for neutral non-partisan legislative redistricting. And it has worked. The districts for the current, closely divided county legislature were drawn through this non-partisan process. But in doing this the first time around we found out that there were some flaws in our design, and we needed to take further steps to be sure that it was more inclusive and effective while remaining non-partisan. 

Under the leadership of County Executive Michael Hein, a commission headed by Kingston attorney Rod Futerfas was formed to work on this. (more…)

The Supreme Court and Gerrymandering: What about New York?

 

The Supreme Court may be on the verge of enacting a standard to block (or at least limit) partisan gerrymandering for state legislatures. There’s just one problem: This “uniform” standard simply does not work for New York State. Or perhaps more ironic, the Supreme Court may choose not to adopt the standard for determining fairness in districting in the Wisconsin case before it now because it is not universal, because it doesn’t work for at least one state, our very gerrymandered Empire state.

New York State has a centuries-long tradition of partisan gerrymandering for its legislature. The 1894 Constitutional Convention cemented a redistricting process for the state’s Senate and Assembly that the great Democratic Governor Al Smith later said made the legislature “constitutionally Republican.” It was not until the U.S. Supreme Court one-person-one-vote decisions of the mid-1960s, 75 years later, that the door was open to a period of Democratic control of the Assembly; that dominance became firm in the famous Watergate election of 1974, and was entrenched in the decennial redistricting following the 1980 census. Meanwhile the Senate remained in GOP hands. And since then, until recently, largely as a result of bipartisan gerrymandering achieved by the collaboration (collusion?) of the partisan majorities in the two houses, New York has had divided control of its legislature, with the Democrats dominant in the Assembly and the Republicans in the Senate. 

A complex state constitutional amendment “reforming” the redistricting process in New York was adopted in November of 2014. There remains a good deal of skepticism, however, about its value in blocking gerrymandering, because it leaves the final word on district design with the Legislature. We will see its impact after 2020. 

Interestingly, even if Senate Democrats manage to patch up their differences, gain a majority and keep it through the redistricting following the 2020 census, it is likely that partisan gerrymandering will persist. Even the most reform minded members in a new Democratic Senate majority are likely to think “now it’s our turn.”

That is, unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides to change the rules. Until now, it has been reluctant. The court acknowledged in Davis v. Bandemer in 1986 that a partisan gerrymander might be so egregious that it would have to step in, but has as yet not found a case in which it was willing to do so. In addition to a reluctance to enter the “political thicket” the court has been concerned about identifying a clear, straightforward useable standard for fairness in districting that might be applied without generating massive amounts of litigation. See Vieth v. Jubelirer (2004).

Very good measures of districting bias devised by political scientists have as yet not found favor with the Supreme Court. Perhaps this is because Chief Justice John Roberts is not the only one on the high bench who regards political science as “sociological gobbledygook.” Yet Justice Kennedy, the swing vote, (more…)

Winning the Battle, Losing the War: How Sales Tax Renewal Thwarts Constitutional Home Rule

This post, written by Dr. Gerald Benjamin, was originally published on the Rockefeller Institute of Government’s blog.  It is reposted here with permission, click here for the full text. On March 27, 2017, the Ulster County legislature unanimously passed Resolution 97 authorizing its chairman “… to request the New York State Legislature to commence Read more…

Excerpts of Gerald Benjamin’s 06/08/17 Public Comment on RUPCO’s Landmark Place/Alms House/300 Flatbush Ave Project

The Alms House in Kingston is a handsome building. It is a testimonial to the city’s compassion, its commitment to the poor and to the idea of inclusion and community. It is very special that the proposed repurposing of the building sustains its use in accord with a redefined but still strongly identifiable social mission. Too many such buildings have been demolished or allowed to fall into disarray in our county – e.g. The Ulster County Poorhouse in New Paltz – diminishing our connection to our historic legacy. This wonderful city hall in which we meet today manifest’s Kingston’s understanding of the value of preserving its great architecture as working spaces, experienced and employed. You need to act again in accord with those values.

The social purpose of the proposed use of the Alms House – a building I know well from its time as a home for county offices – is essential and extraordinarily challenging. The need – still largely unmet – for affordable housing in our county and especially in Kingston is well documented in several studies, cited on the RUPCO website and confirmed by work we are doing in our research center at SUNY New Paltz now. The excessive proportion of income renters must spend for housing draws resources from other essential daily family needs – like food and clothing – diminishing their quality of life and opportunities for their children.  (more…)

Trust Democracy to Restore Democracy

There will be a statewide referendum question on the ballot this fall – required every 20 years – asking New Yorkers whether we should call a state constitutional convention. Our Jacksonian forbearers, the 19th century leaders who provided us with this regular opportunity to review the fundamentals of our governance, proceeded with a profound faith in democracy. Theirs was a very American – a very New York – belief in the possibility for progress and improvement.

The decision to provide this opportunity was realized in practice. During the 19th century conventions were routinely called once in a generation – in 1801, 1821, 1846, 1867, and 1894 – to revise, renew, and reform the way New York State was governed. From any single value perspective, the results were not pristine, but each time a convention convened our forbearers were, in some measure, affirmed in their faith in democracy.

In the 20th century we had 3 conventions: in 1915 and 1938 called by the people, and 1967, called by the legislature. All did, or proposed, some good things. But then we stopped. The half century since our last convention is the longest without such a gathering in New York State history.

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Three Proposals That Assure Independent Oversight by Elected County Comptrollers

Proposed budgets in 2016 two upstate counties, Ulster and Onondaga, delivered bad news to comptrollers, county elected officials charged with fiscal oversight.  In Ulster, County Executive Michael Hein sought a 22% cut (from $890,000 to $695,000) in Comptroller Elliot Auerbach’s budget. Meanwhile, in Onondaga County Executive Joanie Mahoney took $479,000 (27%) out of Comptroller’s Bob Antonacci’s budget. Were these decisions political payback that reveal a need for structural changes in county government, or simply tough-minded management?

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