A Better Way to Redistrict New York
NY Daily News, May 29, 2022
By Peter A. LaVenia, Jr.
Here we are, again. A decade after voters approved the formation of a supposedly Independent Redistricting Commission, meant to create fairer electoral maps and eliminate the problem of partisan gerrymandering, New Yorkers are dealing with the consequences of an attempt by the Democratic Party to radically gerrymander the state legislative and congressional district maps. New Yorkers are so numb to the repeated revelations of political corruption in their state that this is simply seen as another scandal rather than the serious assault on democracy that it is.
Yet there is a simple solution to New York’s gerrymandering woes that would help build a competitive, robust and even multiparty democracy in the Empire State: Multimember Districts (MMD) elected via Single Transferable Vote (STV). It might sound complicated but it’s actually quite elegant.
Rather than elect one member from each district (single-member districts), districts would contain several members. Voters would cast a single ballot but rank their preferences for as many members as there were open seats.
The problem with single-member districts (SMDs) is that they create perverse incentives for gerrymandering, as only one candidate can win in each district. Parties in power tend to draw lines to reduce party competition and protect incumbents by placing as many of their voters as possible in each district, and diluting opposition party voters across several other districts. This is why gerrymandered districts often have such odd shapes. SMDs reward this kind of anti-democratic behavior.
If New York had multimember districts, those bizarre-looking maps drawn for electoral advantage would be eliminated in favor of larger districts that could be relatively compact, geographically contiguous, and maintain communities of interest. For instance, the 150 Assembly districts could become 30 districts with five seats in each; the 63 state Senate districts could become nine districts, with seven seats in each.
Single-transferable vote (STV), the other part of this equation, is easy enough to understand: Voters cast one vote, but rank their choices in order of preference up to the amount of seats up for election in a district. After a candidate passes the threshold for election (or is eliminated), their voters’ other choices are distributed to their next preference, and so on, until all seats have been filled. If this sounds like the RCV now used in NYC’s primaries, it is, just used to help elect multiple candidates.
None of this is new, or radical. Ten states use MMDs for electing state legislators, and they were even more common in the past. Cambridge, Mass., has used MMD with STV since 1941, and 21 cities in the U.S. used it between 1915-1960, including New York City from 1937-1947. In New York City, it led to the election of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the city’s first African-American councilmember; Genevieve Beavers Earle, the first woman elected to the Council; and candidates from the American Labor Party and the Communist Party. MMD with STV was repealed in most places because it was too good at representing racial and ideological diversity, which upset the parties that wanted to maintain the status quo. Yet it works well enough today to be used to elect the Irish Parliament, the Maltese Parliament and the Australian Senate.
If adopted, this would be a win for New York’s voters and its democracy. It would mean an end to the periodic gerrymandering of legislative districts and the ensuing court battles. The new larger, multimember districts with STV would give voters the possibility of a multiparty system, where all votes count and are represented proportionally, and the so-called spoiler effect disappears. Party competition is good for democracy, and multiparty competition would allow for new ideas and policies to be debated and potentially implemented at the state level. New parties might arise, and the older parties with their recent intense internal disputes might separate into smaller, but more ideologically cohesive, blocs. We would likely see real coalition government in Albany, rather than one party controlling everything from a back room.
Of course, there are caveats: The districts need enough members (scholars say a minimum of five) to ensure proportionality. Simple multimember districts, not chosen through single-transferable vote, would likely be worse than single-member. Nor could this happen for House districts unless Congress passes a law (called the Fair Representation Act). New York would also need to reverse the draconian ballot-access law changes made under former Gov. Andrew Cuomo in 2020 as part of his war on political competition.
Yet multimember districts with STV would end the gerrymandering chaos and give us a healthier, functioning, and potentially competitive multimember democracy. Isn’t that worth a chance, for a change?
LaVenia is the co-chair of the Green Party of New York and a visiting assistant professor of political science at SUNY Oneonta.