Counting Backwards

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Every year, the New York State Legislature plays the same game. Democrats control the Assembly, the Republicans own the Senate, the two parties lock horns, and very little gets done. The product of an agreement between the two parties, this setup keeps the powerful in power. It could also get overturned by the next census.

In upstate New York, more and more residents are leaving, fleeing troubled local economies. Population estimates suggest that upstate counties have lost nearly 2 percent of their residents since 1990. At the same time, immigration and a mini baby boom in the city are swelling the downstate population by about the same amount.

The numbers suggest that New York City stands to gain a couple of seats in the Assembly and one more vote in the Senate; Manhattan’s population, for instance, has grown by 4 percent in the last decade. Once the census figures come out next spring, these population shifts ought to have a big impact on the state power structure.

But count on politics as usual to get in the way. New York now faces the same showdown over census data that launched Washington into a partisan war over congressional seats. Albany has to decide how to play the census numbers, a decision that could shift the balance of party power–or keep it just the way it is.

“It can’t be said definitively how this will play out,” admits Doug Forand, a staffer to Senate Minority Leader Martin Connor. But one thing’s for sure, he says: Republicans “are going to do anything they can to minimize the population in New York City.”

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In its last few surveys, the Census Bureau has been plagued by embarrassing undercounts. The errors were particularly bad in urban areas: Census officials figure they missed about 277,000 New York State residents in 1990. More than 85 percent of the undercount was in the city.

So for 2000, the feds planned to use statistical sampling to correct raw headcount data–a decision that became embroiled in politics. Democrats favor sampling because it is likely to tally more poor and minority voters, who tend to vote left; Republicans prefer headcounts. Eventually, the Supreme Court ruled that federal districts must be drawn using only headcount numbers.

But state legislatures are allowed to choose which set of numbers to use. For the city, the implications of this choice are profound. Had Big Apple residents been properly counted in 1990, the city could have won two new seats in the Assembly and possibly another in the State Senate.

The stakes are high. Republicans’ hold on the Senate has become precarious: After dominating for more than 50 years, their margin over the Democrats is now only six seats. The last thing Republicans can afford is a new Senate seat in heavily Democratic New York City.

Chances are, though, that lawmakers will find a way to maintain the old order. In 1982, Assembly Democrats and Senate Republicans hashed out an understanding that each house would handle its own redistricting. The parties promised to draw lines so Dems would get to keep their margin of seats in the Assembly, and the Republicans would hold on to the Senate. As a result, most districts have ended up overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican, virtually guaranteeing incumbents reelection. “There’s a deliberate effort to minimize competition,” says Blair Horner, legislative director for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

With the parties firmly in control of the process, a lot of political maneuvering goes into carving the state into new districts. A task force crunches the numbers and holds perfunctory public hearings, while elected officials negotiate the details behind closed doors. Legislators have argued for, and won, lines redrawn in order to include their apartments, or, in some cases, to draw an elected official out of his district in hopes of removing him from the legislature. Retired Democratic Senator Franz Leichter was “districted out” twice by Republicans during his 30 years in office, forcing him to move to stay inside district lines.

It’s too early to tell if dealmaking will quash the city’s chances at getting a new Senate seat. The outcome is especially unpredictable because of recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions that outlaw districts drawn to promote the election of minority candidates–something that’s been done extensively in the city.

Good government groups have called for an independent commission to oversee the redistricting process. Common Cause, for one, is hoping to put forth a bill in the next couple of months. But observers point out that challenges are unlikely to fly: legislators have repeatedly introduced similar bills calling for an independent districting body, which invariably go nowhere.