BUFFALO, N.Y. -- The Erie County legislators now redrawing
election districts must resist the temptation to manipulate the
remapping process, a University at Buffalo law professor says.
"What redistricting proposal ultimately is accepted will have a
fundamental impact on the composition of the county legislature
and, therefore, on what citizens can expect from the Erie County
government for the next 10 years," says Associate Professor Michael
Halberstam, who teaches law and democracy at UB Law School.
Because the district lines often determine who is elected, the
redistricting process is one of the most controversial issues the
Erie County Legislature faces this year. Reductions in the
legislature mean that four incumbents will lose their seats.
Halberstam says that "the process may therefore become even more
"Manipulation of the redistricting process by special interests,
including manipulation by legislators to get themselves re-elected,
could raise serious concerns about the democratic legitimacy of the
Erie County Legislature," says Halberstam
As a response, Halberstam and Patrick Fitzgerald, a law student
in the Class of 2011, have submitted an independent, nonpartisan
redistricting plan to the Erie County Reapportionment Advisory
Commission. The plan avoids splitting towns and villages like
Cheektowaga, which were previously carved up into two or three
districts. Their goal was to keep communities of interest together
and avoid merging Buffalo voters with voters in the suburbs, who
don't necessarily share their interests. The plan also is designed
to satisfy "one person/one vote," the proscription against minority
vote dilution under the Voting Rights Act, and other provisions of
New York State law, such as the New York Home Rule law.
Halberstam and Fitzgerald are available for interviews. Contact
Halberstam at 646-285-6281.
"We believe that our plan is the only independent, nonpartisan,
expert plan out there," says Fitzgerald. "It does not attempt to
secure electoral gains for any particular incumbent. The plan does
not intend to favor any party, and we have not consulted with any
of the participants in this redistricting process about where to
draw the lines.
"We challenge the legislature to adopt this plan for the
upcoming 2011 elections," he says.
Their plan has already received attention from the media and
Halberstam and Fitzgerald have developed their plan in close
consultation with experts at the ACLU's national Voting Rights
Project in Atlanta. The ACLU educates Republican and Democratic
lawmakers around the county, and has offered technical and expert
support in drafting dozens of congressional and state legislative
plans and innumerable local re-districtings since the 1970s.
Although the advisory board in Erie County is supposed to give
citizens a voice in the process, Halberstam says that the Erie
County board is, technically speaking, not an independent board.
The majority of the committee members are appointed by the
legislators themselves, and are subject to the pressures of special
Halberstam and Fitzgerald's plan with the ACLU makes great
efforts to lay out its philosophy and the legal basis, and make it
accessible to the public. Their plan includes street names so the
public can readily see where the lines are drawn. None of the other
plans under consideration do so. The plan can be accessed here: http://bit.ly/jDQaO2.
"At a time when citizens are disaffected by government at all
levels, the process of redistricting, in particular, should be
squeaky clean," Halberstam says. "This is about 'government of the
people, by the people and for the people.' Elected officials should
not be allowed to vote themselves into office by avoiding public
discussion and the consideration of real, live options that are
actually on the table."
Around the nation, Halberstam believes, citizens are all too
frequently bamboozled by the professionals in this game. That's why
there is a strong movement towards greater transparency, citizen
involvement and independent commissions afoot in this redistricting
"Elected officials are representatives of the citizens," says
Halberstam. "They have taken an oath of office to carry out this
duty. They need to be reminded that they are violating their oath
of office, and the fundamental trust that they need to govern, if
they put their interests before the public interest in drawing
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