Few mechanisms have a greater impact on democratic governance than gerrymandering. Having incumbent politicians redraw districts entrenches them to the point that their reelection rate exceeds 95 percent. To paraphrase Yakov Smirnoff, in gerrymandered districts the voters don’t choose their representatives; the representatives choose the voters.
Gerrymandering enhances the power of political parties since all of the action is in the primaries, and the general election is a forgone conclusion. Many districts throughout the country have not changed party hands in decades. Thus, any challenges to gerrymandering have been briskly opposed by the parties even more than by the incumbents. In fact, the more talented politicians, the ones who could win in competitive elections, would likely benefit from reform since it would bring them out from under the thumb of their party bosses.
It’s hard to imagine a circumstance where the parties that control the redistricting process would agree to reforms that would reduce their power. But such a circumstance appears to be taking shape in New York. New York’s legislature is arguably the most dysfunctional in the nation. It is legendary not only for its brazen corruption, but for the open institutionalization of this corruption. After a string of scandals, the door may now be open to a reform movement that is attacking this corruption at its root by proposing to eliminate gerrymandering.
A coalition of brand-name New York politicians and good-government groups are getting every gubernatorial candidate to promise, in writing, that they will only sign off on a redistricting plan drawn up by a non-partisan commission. Whether or not the elected governor will actually veto anything less than that remains to be seen. Whether the governor’s veto of anything less will stand in a gerrymandered legislature remains to be seen. One has reason to be hopeful on the first question. The leading candidate for governor is Andrew Cuomo, despite the fact that he hasn’t officially announced his candidacy. Andrew’s father, former governor Mario Cuomo, is one of the leaders of the reform campaign. After all, it’s no great honor to be lord of a cesspool.