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Court Educates Cuomo on the Meaning of the Word "Independent"

Correcting the Governor

Politicians are masters at hijacking words and twisting them for their own purposes. One of the words politicians like to use is “independent” to describe themselves and their actions. Every ten years the state legislature taking into account census population changes draws new Senate and Assembly district boundary lines. One of the many ways that elections are rigged to favor incumbents and political parties, is how district lines are made. Instead of drawing competitive districts where a Democrat or Republican might have an equal shot at winning, lines are drawn which essentially pre-determine what incumbent or party will win.

Cuomo Sells Phony Reform as Remarkable and Historic

In 2012 Governor Andrew Cuomo promised to veto any new district lines that were not drawn by an “independent” commission. Many states around the country have created independent commissions not controlled by legislators to draw district lines in an effort to end political games with re-districting. Despite his promises to demand reform of the redistricting process and his threats to veto any district lines drawn by the legislature, Cuomo as he often does caved in the end and made a political deal. Cuomo backed down from vetoing another decade of politically drawn districts based on an agreement with the legislature to amend the state Constitution by creating an “independent” commission to draw legislative district lines in the future. The “independent” redistricting Commission Cuomo and the legislature agreed to would be appointed by state legislators.

Once the deal was made Cuomo in typical exaggerated fashion stated in a press release: “we fundamentally have reformed the process once and for all” and helped “create an independent and bipartisan panel [to] ensure a fair and objective process.” “This agreement will permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested and partisan gerrymandering,”

Continuing with over the top rhetoric the Cuomo press release stated further:

“This is a truly remarkable development. Never before in the history of American politics has a governor negotiated such a redistricting reform with the legislature in the midst of this decennial power struggle. The constitutional amendment announced today will bring much-needed independence and fairness to the redistricting process in New York.”

Wow, who writes this stuff, “Never before in the history of American politics has a governor negotiated such a redistricting reform...”. Several newspapers and good government groups criticized the deal made by Cuomo on the basis that the so called “independent” redistricting commission would be appointed by and controlled by state legislators. When the New York State Board of Elections released the language that voters would see when voting up or down the constitutional amendment, Common Cause filed a lawsuit. One of the issues raised in the lawsuit was that the ballot language describing the commission as “independent” was misleading.

Supreme Court Judge Finds Cuomo’s Use of the Word “Independent” as Misleading

Albany State Supreme Court Judge Patrick McGrath in his decision pointed out that Webster’s dictionary defines the word “independent” as: “not dependent; not subject to control by others; not affiliated with a larger controlling unit; not requiring or relying on something else; not contingent; not looking for one’s opinions for guidance or conduct; not bound by or committed to a political party.”

After establishing the definition of “independent” Judge McGrath stated: “The common and everyday meaning of the word independent implies a Commission that has the freedom to make decisions, which are not subject to the influence of another. The Commission cannot be described as “independent” when eight of ten members are the handpicked appointees of the legislative leaders and the two additional members are essentially political appointees by proxy.”

Judge McGrath noted in his decision that the Commission’s redistricting plan is simply a recommendation to the legislature, which can reject it for unstated reasons and draw its own lines. “Therefore this Court finds that the term “independent” is misleading, because the creation of the Commission, its procedures and its ultimate outcome are all “subject to control by others.”

The Court decision also draws attention to the unique voting requirements that the legislation contained. Laid out in the legislation is the requirement that if party control of the legislature changes, the minority party appointees will have veto power of the redistricting plan submitted by the Commission. McGrath addressed this item by stating: “The Court is not aware of any other law in New York State that has ever required a Commission or any legislative body’s vote approval to be dependent on the political make-up of the Legislature.”

We Have Been Down This Road Before

Cuomo created the Moreland Commission to investigate political corruption claiming that the commission would be “totally independent” and free to pursue wrongdoing anywhere in state government, including in his own office. “Anything they want to look at, they can look at—me, the lieutenant governor, the attorney general, the comptroller, any senator, any assemblyman,” Cuomo stated. As the New York Times pointed out in an investigative report, Cuomo through his staff micromanaged the operation of the Commission and interfered when a subpoena was directed to a firm that did political work for Cuomo.

Cuomo described the Moreland Commission as being “independent” when it wasn’t and he described the redistricting commission as being “independent” when as Judge McGrath’s decision points out it was not. This is also not the first time the New York State Board of Elections has drafted misleading ballot language for a Cuomo initiative. Instead of stating neutral language and simply asking voters whether they supported more casinos, in 2013 the Board of Elections added language about increasing casinos to promote job growth, provide financing for schools and to lower taxes. These claimed benefits from casino gambling have been questioned in many studies and such language instead of being neutral clearly advocated for and encouraged people to vote for expanding casino gambling in New York. Having been deceived once before by ballot language, Common Cause was ready when the redistricting language was prepared.

In Albany it is impossible to get an honest neutral question presented to voters and it is impossible to have the word “independent” used in an honest way.

The Resistance to Ending Rigged Elections Is Amazing

Elections in New York State are rigged. There are reasons why incumbents win their elections 98% of time. More legislators resign due to indictment than lose elections. The drawing of state legislature district lines every ten years is a critical piece in how elections are rigged in New York. State legislators control how district lines are drawn and in the process they make sure that incumbents are protected and that very few districts are competitive as far as having an equal number of Democratic and Republican voters.

The lengths that Cuomo and the legislature went to in order to sell the public a phony reform is amazing. Fortunately Judge McGrath was not fooled by the rhetoric and called Cuomo and the state legislature out on their distorted use of the word “independent”.

Vote No to Forming Cuomo’s Redistricting Commission

The efforts of Common Cause and Judge McGrath’s decision have drawn public attention to the phony reform Cuomo and the legislature were selling to the public. The only way to truly end this charade is to vote no in November on whether the state constitution should be amended to create a redistricting commission appointed by and controlled by the state legislature. New York State government needs real redistricting reform and what is being presented for a vote is not real or meaningful reform in any way. Don’t let Cuomo and the legislature get away with this.

Paul Wolf is an attorney and the founder of the Center for Reinventing Government, Inc.,

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