Once every 10 years, state legislatures across the country play a game known as reapportionment. After the federal census is completed, your elected state legislators will decide what each legislative district will look like in the years to come. A district map will be drawn, which will show you what federal and state election district you will vote in for the next 10 years.
If you’ve never seen a map of the current districts, you’d find it fascinating. They take the shape of alligators, inkblots, clouds and even, in one case in central New York, President Lincoln riding a vacuum cleaner. For each odd shape, there is a political explanation as to how it got there. Districts are almost always crafted to protect some incumbent or to make it more likely that a newly anointed candidate will win.
In the late 1960s, I served in the State Assembly in a district that included the Village of Island Park. It’s a cute little town, and the residents were very welcoming during my short tenure in Albany. But the mapmakers wanted to create a district for the then future, and now former, assemblyman, Armand D’Amato, so between one election and the next, Island Park was removed from my district.
That was a minor change compared with what the mapmakers did after that. When the final map was unveiled, my Assembly district, which had encompassed communities including Merrick, Freeport and Baldwin, had disappeared, and the new district included my hometown of Long Beach and the entire Five Towns. Having a new area with many Democrats was very gratifying, except that there was already an incumbent in that district, the late Eli Wager. That meant that he and I were forced to compete in a bitter party primary in the new district, which I was fortunate enough to win.
The process by which my district disappeared overnight is what we have come to know as gerrymandering. The practice of slicing and dicing legislative districts dates back to 1812, when Elbridge Gerry, the governor of Massachusetts, signed a bill that created a Boston district that looked like a salamander. From that point on, districts began resembling all manner of species, and the shape of those districts was determined by racial, religious, political and ethnic factors.
In 2020, you’ll hear a lot more about gerrymandering. Based on the anticipated census figures, New York is expected to lose two members of Congress. No doubt, one upstate district will be merged into an adjoining one, and a downstate district will have the same fate. That will make it likely that two or more current members of Congress will be forced into competitive battles for their jobs.
If you think the next legislative map of New York and the rest of the country is going to be drawn by political cartographers, you’re in for a surprise. The U.S. Supreme Court has grown weary of listening to challenges to redistricting. It has one case now pending before it, and a number of lower federal courts have already struck down the legislative maps in Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. In all of those cases, the newly drawn districts favored Republicans.
The judges in those cases decided that too many voters of one party were packed into isolated districts in order to tilt the elections toward the majority party. In addition, districts with heavy minority populations were redrawn to dilute the influence of those particular ethnic groups.
It’s fair to say that political gerrymandering may soon be in its dying days, and that new legislative districts around the country will better reflect the people who live in them. The downstate region, including Long Island, must not be exempted from this judicial tidal wave. Cutting villages in half and creating oddly shaped districts could be a thing of the past. It only took 206 years for this reckoning to take place, but sooner or later, a more representative democracy will arrive in our voting booths.
Jerry Kremer was a state assemblyman for 23 years, and chaired the Assembly’s Ways and Means Committee for 12 years. He now heads Empire Government Strategies, a business development and legislative strategy firm. Comments about this column? JKremer@liherald.com.