Clarkstown Begins Process To Draw Election Wards

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017 at 7:30 p.m. the Town of Clarkstown will hold a Workshop Meeting during which there will be a presentation by the Skyline Consulting Firm on the setting up of a Ward System  for Clarkstown. The firm will provide an explanation of the process and guidelines which will be followed in order to generate a proposed Ward Map.

Back in June 2016 we stated our view as to how the Ward Map must be generated to avoid any gerrymandering or even the appearance of gerrymandering.  We suggested that there needed to be honest checks and balances in the drawing of the Ward lines and that an independent organization should be hired to perform this work.

We began our opinion piece by pointing to an excellent article in the March 1st, 2015 issue of the Washington Post which stated:

Gerrymandering — drawing political boundaries to give your party a numeric advantage over an opposing party — is a difficult process to explain. If you find the notion confusing, check out the chart above and wonder no more.

Suppose we have a very tiny state of fifty people. Thirty of them belong to the Blue Party, and 20 belong to the Red Party. And just our luck, they all live in a nice even grid with the Blues on one side of the state and the Reds on the other.

Now, let’s say we need to divide this state into five districts. Each district will send one representative to the House to represent the people. Ideally, we want the representation to be proportional: if 60 percent of our residents are Blue and 40 percent are Red, those five seats should be divvied up the same way.

Fortunately, because our citizens live in a neatly ordered grid, it’s easy to draw five lengthy districts — two for the Reds , and three for the Blues. Voila! Perfectly proportional representation, just as the Founders intended. That’s grid 1 above, “perfect representation”.

Now, let’s say instead that the Blue Party controls the state government, and they get to decide how the lines are drawn. Rather than draw districts vertically they draw them horizontally, so that in each district there are six Blues and four Reds. You can see that in grid 2 above, “compact but unfair”.

With a comfortable Blue majority in this state, each district elects a blue candidate to the House. The Blues win 5 seats and the Reds don’t get a single one. Oh well! All’s fair in love and politics.

Finally, what if the Red Party controls the state government? The Reds know they’re at a numeric disadvantage. But with some creative boundary drawing — the type you see in grid 3, “neither compact nor fair” — they can slice the Blue population up such that they only get a majority in two districts. So despite making up 40 percent of the population, the Reds win 60 percent of the seats. Not bad!

Now, this exercise is of course a huge simplification. In the real world people don’t live in neatly-ordered grids sorted by political party. But for real-world politicians looking to give themselves an advantage at redistricting time, the process is exactly the same, as are the results for the parties that gerrymander successfully.

Here is a classic example of gerrymandering of the legislative districts in Rockland County. Take a look at this county map and ask why district #13 has such an odd and twisted shape compared for example with districts #2 or #3.  Take a closer look at district #13 and ask yourself why the boundaries were drawn in this convoluted manner?  Given the demographic changes the county map will be redrawn after the next census. With the Ramapo Democrats firmly in control of the county legislature one may expect more of this ridiculous gerrymandering by the bloc-controlled Democrats.  Areas of Clarkstown will be combined with areas in Ramapo so that situation #3 above eventually brings Clarkstown under Ramapo’s subjugation through a process that is “compact but unfair”.

In the November 2015 election, Clarkstown voters approved a proposition to adopt a ward system of government in the Town of Clarkstown. The process of implementing that system is now underway in a way that differs from how the proposition was presented to the voters.

Specifically, the Town Board passed a local law giving itself the authority to draw the ward lines despite the fact hat the proposition on the ballot clearly stated the lines would be drawn by the Board of Elections. While it was perfectly within the legal rights of the Town Board to take this action, the public deserves a thorough and logical explanation as to how the Board now proposes to have a Ward Map drawn up that is both objective and non-gerrymandered.

In our earlier article we stated our belief that the citizens of Clarkstown, the members of the Town Board, and Supervisor Hoehmann should all be very concerned about the potential implications of putting the power to draw AND approve the Ward lines solely in the hands of the any Town Board or any future Town Board. We hold the same view that the power to draw AND approve the Ward lines should not be held solely by the Board of Elections.  In our view, there should be a system of checks and balances in place.

It is our hope that the consulting company that will undertake this task will pay heed to the input from all members of the Town Board, Republican and Democrat, and will conduct its work in a completely independent and impartial manner.  As editors of Rockland Voice, we remain very much in favor of the Ward system for Clarkstown. We further believe that a future combination of the Towns of Clarkstown and Orangetown into a proposed City Of Soutn Rockland, which will  extricate these Towns from the gerrymandered mess that is the Rockland County Legislature,  is an even more secure means of protecting our diverse and suburban quality of life. However, that movement is just starting. In our view, the primary objective at hand is to ensure that the Ward lines are drawn in the most logical manner with regard to natural geographical boundaries, the requirement to keep election districts intact, an equal division of registered voters regardless of party affiliation in each Ward, and a preference to keep hamlets / communities whole whenever possible.

We believe there should be NO gerrymandering of the districts to favor any political party, nor to recreate a distribution of power in the wards to reflect the current split of registered Democrats vs. Republicans, nor to protect the seat of any present incumbent. We have independently looked at several possible ways to draw four Wards in Clarkstown and we see no possible way to draw a Republican controlled ward in Clarkstown without severe gerrymandering based on the illustration we have outlined above.   We therefore both anticipate and expect that when the consulting company returns with its proposal all four Wards will have a majority of Democratic voters.

The Board of Elections was the proposed option on the ballot to draw these lines but we found that option to be highly problematic. First, the Board would have been empowered to simply draw the lines without any public hearing or input. The lines that they would have drawn would have been final and there would have been no fail-safe mechanism to dispute or change what the Board of Elections sets forth as the legal boundaries. Further, the public has no recourse to vote the commissioners out of office at the next election if the lines are gerrymandered. The commissioners have been beholden to the political party leaders in the past, not to the public.

The citizens of Clarkstown have come too far recently with improvements in their local government structures to now hand over recently won transparency gains to Party leaders who may have nothing but their own self interests at heart. The Skyline Consulting Group must keep that fact in mind as it sets about this work.

As previously stated, we believe the Town Board is far from an ideal governing body to be given the power to draw the Ward lines. First and foremost, the instinct of self-preservation creates a conflict that we have already seen run rampant in the Rockland County Legislature. While Clarkstown doesn’t have the ethnic and religious pockets of concentration that the County has currently, that situation can change at any time and Ward lines are subject to being redrawn based on population changes after every census. Whichever party is in power at such time, holding the ability to draw and approve the lines, can simply take a “to the victors go the spoils” approach.  

We note at this juncture that:

1) The Town Board has passed a local law giving it the authority over the Ward maps, but we hope it exercises the authority to APPROVE the lines, but NOT to DRAW them.

2) We expect that the consulting company will prove to be a disinterested organization NOT influenced by business or political ties in or with New York State.

3) The Election Board should supply the chosen consulting grooup with the number of residents and the number of registered voters in each of the election districts in Clarkstown.  General information as to geographic boundaries, postal codes, the boundaries of hamlets, school districts etc., should also be provided but NO other information should be provided.  The organization should NOT be provided with registered party information or information on where elected officials reside.

We previously suggested the following process and believe that these ideas should be considered:

1) The consultant should submit three proposed maps to the Town Board ranked in its preferred order and provide its reasons for the ranking.

2) The Board of Elections and the Town Board should then separately provide their own preferred ranking of the three maps submitted.

3) Each map should then be ranked giving three points to the map ranked #1 by each of the three entities, two points to the map ranked #2 by the entities, and one point to the map ranked #3 by each entity.  The map receiving the highest ranking should then be adopted.

4) In the event that the ranking process leads to a tie between two or more maps, the Town Board, as authorized by the local law, will have the final decision by a supermajority vote as to which of the tied Ward maps is chosen.

One needs to look no further than the present Rockland County Legislature, where a consultant was also used in drawing the lines, to see how a carefully constructed process can still be corrupted.  We believe that the process outlined above protects all parties, but particularly it protects the public from corruption in the drawing of the Ward lines and will provide contiguity for school districts, communities, etc.

Our proposal makes a clear separation of powers between drawing the lines and approving the lines. Final approval of the lines would rest with the Town Board, and would require a supermajority vote. This proposal includes both the Board of Elections and the Town Board in the process, but relies exclusively on data and geography based upon a strict set of rules that a disinterested third party must follow.

The objective is to create a system of checks and balances that protects the people of Clarkstown to the maximum extent possible against manipulation of the Ward lines for political advantage by any party, both now and in the future. At the very least, by adhering to a strict set of guidelines such as those we have put forth in this and in our previous article, the public would be guaranteed a high level of protection against classical, corrupt gerrymandering.

With these concerns in mind, we urge the Town Board to accept this course of action.

[Author’s note:  The editors of Rockland Voice wish to thank those citizens who spoke to us and provided feedback.  We realize that the final Ward map that will be drawn for Clarkstown will almost certainly have a Democratic majority in each of the four Wards. However, it is our view that Party affiliations at the local level are becoming less important given the nature of the problems we believe that Clarkstown faces over the foreseeable future.]

About Jeff Gillies

Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

About the Author
Jeff Gillies currently resides in Bardonia and has roots that go back four generations in Rockland County. He is a graduate of Villanova University and Albertus Magnus High School. He has lived most of his life in Rockland County and grew up in Congers.

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