By CARA MATTHEWS
Gannett Albany Bureau
ALBANY - Citizens Union, a good-government group, sought to bolster its case for independent redistricting by releasing a report Monday that found incumbents in New York easily keep their seats and competition has decreased under the current system.
See the full report from the Citizens Union
Ninety-six percent of incumbents have been re-elected in the 941 state legislative races since 2002, with just 38 losing re-election, the study found. In 1968, 1 percent of races were uncontested, compared to 19 percent in 2010.
The report said the other effects of "partisan gerrymandering" include increasing margins of victory in contested elections, declining voter turnout and a lack of minority representation.
"This report is an attempt to build a very comprehensive case about why New York needs redistricting reform now," said Dick Dadey, executive director of Citizens Union.
ReShapeNY, a coalition that includes Citizens Union and three-dozen other groups, are calling for an independent commission to draw district lines for the state Legislature and House of Representatives. The coalition wants a special session of the Legislature to adopt a bill before the end of the year, but that appears unlikely.
Redistricting takes place every 10 years, after a new census count.
The Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment has completed public hearings around the state. Task Force Co-chairman John McEneny, D-Albany, said he hopes the panel can reach an agreement on counting prisoners early next month. The next step would be to release draft maps.
A 2010 state law requires counting prisoners in their hometowns rather than where they are incarcerated. The U.S. Census still counts them at their correctional facility. The redistricting panel is developing its own figures, but it has run into problems because there are no addresses, or invalid ones, for about 20,000 prisoners.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has promised to veto any district lines that aren't created through an independent process.
Senate Republicans passed legislation this year for a constitutional amendment that would create a non-partisan redistricting committee. The bill would have to be approved by voters in two separate sessions of the Legislature, so it would not have taken effect until after the 2020 census.
"Senate Republicans remain committed to a redistricting process that is bipartisan, open and fair," said Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Nassau County.
Senate Democratic spokesman Mike Murphy said New York's redistricting process "has acted as an incumbent protection program - now is the time for change."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, D-Manhattan, recently proposed an eight-member bipartisan redistricting commission. Legislative leaders in both houses would appoint members.
Assembly Minority Leader Brian Kolb, R-Canandaigua, Ontario County, said he has supported an independent redistricting process all along. However, the Task Force on Redistricting and Reapportionment is "the only game in town right now."
There hasn't been a lot of transparency so far, he said.
Kolb said he believes non-partisan redistricting would help the Assembly Republicans pick up seats.
Meanwhile, six voters have filed a federal lawsuit asking for a court-appointed special master to oversee legislative redistricting.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn last Thursday, alleges that redistricting "has become an exercise in partisan self-dealing and incumbent protection."
The plaintiffs include Howard Lieb, an attorney and educator from Tompkins County who is considering running for state Senate next year; Lillie H. Galan of Yonkers, who is retired from the state Office of Children and Family Services; and Edward Mulaine, a pastor at Unity Baptist Tabernacle in Mount Vernon, Westchester County.
"Having the judiciary intervene and having a special master appointed is the best possibility to have a redistricting process that is completed not only in a timely manner but in a manner consistent with New York's and the United States' constitution and governing law," said the plaintiffs' attorney, Richard Mancino of Wilkie Farr & Gallagher in New York City.
Legislators draw their own districts and feel that "they don't have to be responsive to voters anymore because it's a done deal," said Robert Abrams, former state attorney general and a Citizens Union board member.
This leads to a lack of progress on important legislation and a "depression" of the democratic process, he said.
"All of this adds up to an attitude on the part of voters that it doesn't matter whether I vote," Abrams said.
In 2010, less than 35 percent of eligible New Yorkers voted in the governor's race. Nationwide, turnout was an average of 40.8 percent.
Dadey said the report also demonstrates how gerrymandering has split up communities and divided ethnic groups. There is too much variation in size between the smallest and largest districts, he said.
A quarter of state lawmakers are minorities, but minorities comprise 42 percent of New York population, the report said.
The report also found that redistricting has divided groups of people with common interests, citing Rochester as an example.
There are three Assembly districts (all held by Democrats) and three state Senate districts (all held by Republicans) in the city. Based on its population, one Senate district and two Assembly districts could represent the city, it said.
ReShapeNY said it has received support of 184 of the 212 lawmakers for independent redistricting. They either signed pledges during campaign season or signed onto legislation to reform the process this year.