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Report decries redistricting's effects

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If you’d like to see partisan gerrymandering, look no further than the north country’s Assembly and Senate districts, a report from a good-government group concludes.

Senate districts 47 and 48, represented by Republicans Joseph A. Griffo and Patricia A. Ritchie, respectively, are two of the least-populated districts in the state, drawn that way by the lawmakers themselves to allow the state Senate GOP to magnify its clout by having more districts in politically friendly areas. Assembly districts 118 and 122, represented respectively by Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River, are significantly overpopulated, an effort by Assembly Democrats to stuff more Republicans into fewer Assembly districts, the report says.

“This is not a coincidence or something that occurred by chance,” said Alex Camarda of Citizens Union, which released on Monday a lengthy report on the state’s process of redrawing its political boundaries.

In addition, Assembly District 118 stretches into two counties, while Assembly District 122 is in two of the same counties, and four in total.

“Clearly these districts could have been drawn with more respect for the integrity of county borders,” Mr. Camarda said.

But like many problems in Albany, this one defies an easy fix. Citizens Union is clamoring for nonpartisan redistricting, which would give the map-drawing authority to an outside body, rather than lawmakers themselves. But good-government groups have failed to marshal support among legislators to pass a bill allowing it this year, even though they’re in possession of promises from those very same lawmakers saying that they will.

The lawmakers themselves have been backing away from the pledges they made, lawsuits are being filed, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s words are being parsed and Citizens Union is warning of the deleterious effect it will have on New York’s democracy.

“It reflects how corrosive and debilitating partisan redistricting has been, and what it has meant in New York,” said Robert Abrams, president of the Citizens Union Foundation. “You’ve heard the tremendous increase in uncontested elections, the percentage of victory. What it means in the Legislature is a sense of arrogance has permeated the legislative process.”

According to the Citizens Union report, lawmakers have drawn their lines to protect incumbents, which has increased incumbents’ margin of victory and their victory rate and caused a decrease in the number of contested elections. It found:

■ The re-election rate for incumbents from 2002 to 2010 was 96 percent.

■ The average of margin of victory for incumbents has increased to 51 percent, from 33 percent in 1968.

■ Uncontested races for state Legislature accounted for 19 percent of all races in 2010, up from 1 percent in 1968.

That, in turn, has helped fuel a sluggish voter turnout, the good-government group concludes. New York had the fourth-worst voter turnout in the nation in 2010, the report says.

“We’re not pinning it solely on redistricting,” said Dick Dadey, Citizens Union executive director. “Redistricting is a major factor.”

Citizens Union officials say there is still time to put together a nonpartisan panel. The group of lawmakers that historically has drawn the lines is going about its work, despite a veto threat by Mr. Cuomo, who also has said that a veto would create “chaos,” leading some to believe that a possible solution with legislators drawing the lines could be in the works.

“I’ve read a couple of different statements where the governor has allowed himself an out on this,” Mr. Blankenbush said. “If he believes that this is a fair division and redistricting without gerrymandering, I think he probably would take a look at that.”

Asked if his own district was gerrymandered — the word used to describe districts that have been drawn with purely political calculus in mind — Mr. Blankenbush said yes, in some ways.

In 1992, then-Assemblyman H. Robert Nortz, R-Lowville, was drawn into the same district as a fellow Republican member of the Assembly, setting up a primary between the two Republicans to effectively weed one of them out. He designated his summer home in Cape Vincent as his permanent address and ran in a different district instead of engaging in a primary. Those changes helped shape the 122nd Assembly District.

But, Mr. Blankenbush said: “I don’t believe my district was set apart to help or hurt the incumbent.”

Mrs. Russell said she didn’t believe her district was gerrymandered.

“There’s absolutely a continuity of interest,” Mrs. Russell said, pointing to similar tourism industries in the “River District.”

Her district stretches from Watertown in the south to union-heavy Massena in the north, sneaking east to catch college towns Canton and Potsdam. The district has a Republican majority, but the margins are closer than other Assembly districts in the north country.

She did not sign a pledge saying she would support independent redistricting.

“I’m not sure there can actually ever be a nonpartisan redistricting process,” she said. “At some point, politics enters into any redistricting process.”

Mr. Griffo said the path toward independent redistricting was an amendment to the state’s constitution. But because of the time it takes to pass a constitutional amendment, it wouldn’t apply until the next time redistricting comes around — 2022. Meanwhile, districts may have to be in place as early as February.

“The work is ongoing,” Mr. Griffo said. “I hope there’s communication between the leaders and the executive so we can find something that’s better, understanding the time constraints that you have now.”

A spokesman for Mrs. Ritchie said he couldn’t say whether Mrs. Ritchie’s district was gerrymandered. The last time the lines were drawn, in 2002, was before any of the north country’s legislators held office.

“I think it was drawn to be a competitive district,” James E. Reagen said. “Look at it. Look at what has occurred in the last three elections.”

Darrel J. Aubertine, a Democrat, won there twice in 2008. Mrs. Ritchie beat him by a slim margin in 2010.

Back to 2011: The state still does not know who will draw the lines — the panel of lawmakers or an independent commission — or if the matter will go before the courts.

A group of New Yorkers filed a lawsuit to try to get a federal judge to oversee the process, the New York Times reported Friday.

Citizens Union is not involved, but “I think it speaks to voters’ concerns about the lack of effective representation if an independent commission is not formed to address this issue of gerrymandering,” Mr. Dadey said.

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