Editorial: The census and your vote

DID YOU NOTICE all the vacant homes in Copake, Canaan and Ancram? The U.S. Census Bureau did, and from the numbers — it lists 41% of Copake homes as vacant — you’d think these places are ghost towns, with tumbleweed bouncing down Route 22.

But no, the homes the census considers “vacant” include dwellings where nobody was home last year when census workers counted heads, a definition that covers snowbirds in Florida and weekenders who got counted somewhere else. Still, the countywide rate for such vacant homes did rise about 3% over the last decade to 21% of all the homes here. That’s more than double the state average, and it hints at some of the political shifts ahead.

The Census Bureau has begun to dribble out data from the 2010 count, with the first figures reporting how many people live in each census tract, the number of vacant homes and the race that people listed for themselves and members of their households. The census collects all sorts of other facts about jobs, income and family origin, but the reason why population, race and home occupancy come out first has to do with why we have a census in the first place.

The Constitution says that these figures determine how many representatives we’ll have in the House of Representatives, and in that respect, New York State and Ohio are the big losers. Each state will give up two seats in the House in the 2012, while states like Texas and Florida, which grew much faster, will gain seats. Fewer seats means fewer districts, and one of the districts in New York in jeopardy of being swallowed by its neighbors is the 20th, represented by Congressman Chris Gibson (R). It covers all of Columbia County.

Why here and not someplace else? New York State’s population increased by just over 2% during the last 10 years, and we here in Columbia County did our part… kind of. Unlike counties that lost population, we added two people. That’s right, the county’s population surged from 63,094 people in the year 2000 to a whopping 63,096 last year. That type of no-growth growth catches the eye of the people who make congressional redistricting decisions.

Traditionally the state legislature in New York redraws state and federal district lines. But during last year’s election campaign, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch prodded candidates to agree that a non-partisan commission should take over that task. That approach, used by some other states, produces more rational district boundaries than the ones that define the 20th. Mr. Gibson’s district stretches through 10 counties from the Adirondacks down to Dutchess in the south and westward through the Catskills.

More recently lawmakers, most notably the Republicans who control the state Senate, have backed away from commitments to a new, more open approach to drawing district lines for congressional and state representation. That may serve the short-term interest these officeholders, who see preserving their gerrymandered districts as the best way to hang on to power. But it reveals how little they trust the judgment of the people who elected them. Taxpayers of this state need help, and we won’t get it if new districts only solidify the old fiefdoms that helped make this mess.

On a much more positive note, the Columbia County Board of Elections has embarked on a bi-partisan redistricting plan that promises to save money and improve access to polling places. The two county election commissioners, Virginia Martin (D) and Jason Nastke (R), propose consolidating districts in parts of eight towns and the City of Hudson.

This will require some people to change where they vote. That’s bound to make a few of those voters confused and grumpy, especially if they have cast their ballots in one familiar building for years. But here too, the numbers define the terms of the debate.

The federal and state governments have imposed new costs on the county by forcing us to pay for new voting technology. Meanwhile, our tax base shows no immediate sign of expanding. One of the benefits of the new county plan is that reducing the number of polling places cuts the costs of running an election. The commissioners estimate the new plan could save the county as much as $30,000 for a countywide election like the one this fall. You’d have to be in a really bad mood not to feel a tingle of pleasure from helping save that much tax money every time you cast your vote. 

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