[A great explainer on prisoner populations and why they're counted how they appeared on It's a Free Country in May. Read it here.]
By Karen DeWitt, WXXI Capitol Bureau Chief
The 2012 elections for the state legislature will be influenced, more than anything else, by the mandatory redistricting process, required every ten years after a new census.
In the past, Democrats, who have long dominated the Assembly, and the Republicans who have controlled the Senate in all but two years in more than a half century, have allowed the majority party in each house to have free reign in drawing the district lines, largely to the advantage of the incumbent politicians.
In recent decades, that arrangement has especially benefited Senate Republicans, who are losing party voters to Democrats in the increasingly blue state.
A law passed in 2010, during one of the rare times that Democrats held the State Senate, also has the potential to further erode the GOP’s remaining base. The new law says prison inmates can no longer be counted as residing in the prisons, located mostly in remote rural upstate legislative districts, but must be counted in the districts where they lived before they were put in jail. For decades, Republicans had counted the prisoners as living upstate to help boost population for their Senate districts.
Alice Green, with the Center for Law and Justice, who testified at a legislative hearing, says that’s fundamentally unfair. She says nearly half of the state’s 57,000 prisoners are from New York City.
90% of African American inmates, or around 24,000, are serving time in prisons upstate. She says white rural communities have benefited from counting the inmates as residing in the prison towns because it artificially boosts their populations, at the expense of mostly poor urban communities, where populations then appear to decline.
“This is tantamount to airlifting the population of zip code 10039 out of Harlem and dropping it somewhere in the middle of the Adirondacks,” Green said.
Senate Republicans sued to overturn the new law on procedural grounds, saying they want to go back to counting the inmates in the districts where they are imprisoned.
As the legislature formed a task force to begin drawing the lines, the GOP wanted to continue to count the inmates in the prisons, saying as long as there was legal action against the new law, it didn’t make sense to follow it.
At first, Assembly Democrats acquiesced, but later changed their position, and now say the 2010 law must be followed, and that inmates need to be counted at the address where they lived before prison.
At a meeting of the legislative task force on redistricting at the Capitol, Senate Republicans now agreed that they would follow the law, too, even though they are also challenging it in court.
“The law will be complied with,” said Senator Mike Nozzolio, co-chair of the task force. And, perhaps hoping that the Republican’s suit would be successful before the new district lines are actually finalized, he added, “whatever that law is”.
The dispute over where to count prison inmates may be the least of lawmakers problems, though, when drawing the new district lines.
Governor Andrew Cuomo continues to say he does not like the legislature’s process one bit. Just hours after the task force meeting, he said again that he intends to veto any lines that are not drawn by an independent commission and include any gerrymandering.
“I have said from Day One that I believe the redistricting lines should be the product of an independent process and should not be partisan,” said Cuomo.
SUNY political science professor Bruce Gyory says the legislature, and Senate Republicans in particular, might be better off just doing what Cuomo asks.
“If they push too far in truly partisan gerrymandering, the governor either vetoes it or the courts will overturn it, in which case it will go over to a special master,” said Gyory. “And that uncertainty would be worse.”
That’s because the special master is appointed by the federal justice department. In past decades, that justice department was run by a Republican President, Reagan or one of the Bushes. This year it is Democratic President Obama’s Justice Department who would chose the master, and Gyory says they may not be very sympathetic to Republican concerns.
Democrats, who hold a nearly two to one majority in the Assembly, have less to worry about.