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Redistricting Will Affect What Citizens Can Expect from Erie County for the Next 10 Years, says UB Law Professor

Release Date: May 11, 2011

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UB Law Professor Michael Halberstam worked with law student Patrick Fitzgerald to submit a redistricting plan for Erie County.

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 contentious."

"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 local lawmakers.

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 interests.

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:

"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 cycle.

"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 election districts."

Since its founding in 1887, the University at Buffalo Law School – the State University of New York system's only law school – has established an excellent reputation and is widely regarded as a leader in legal education. Its cutting-edge curriculum provides both a strong theoretical foundation and the practical tools graduates need to succeed in a competitive marketplace, wherever they choose to practice. A special emphasis on interdisciplinary studies, public service and opportunities for hands-on clinical education makes UB Law unique among the nation's premier public law schools.

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