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SU Political Science Prof. Questions Whether Onondaga County Democrats Could Have Made Gains In Redrawn District Maps

This is the GOP's proposed map.
Onondaga County
This is the GOP's proposed map. Democrats say Camillus and Dewitt shouldn't be divided into 3 or 4 districts, and that the city's majority-minority neighborhoods shouldn't be split up.

Friday marks what will likely be the final public hearing in what many democrats have called a partisan, political, and broken process of redrawing Onondaga County’s legislative district lines.  Despite the outcry, one political expert says it’s not clear if the results would have been dramatically different.

There’s no doubt the reapportionment process is complicated, with no clear, simple answers within the county’s process that don’t end up favoring one party or another. Syracuse University Political Science Professor Grant Reeher says even if the GOP map didn’t break up suburbs that might be more friendly to democrats, he’s not sure it would make much difference.

"It's not clear to me how many more seats democrats are going to be able to pick up, over what they've already been able to pick up, just by playing around with the maps. The party's problem has to do with turnout in these off-off-year elections, and also the apparent fact that there are quite a number of democrats that are ticket splitting."

…meaning, voting for republicans. Reeher says keeping towns like DeWitt and Camillus together in their own districts might make practical and even legal sense, but he wonders if it’s ultimately the best way to represent a community on the legislature.

"That presumes that you want to send legislators who are only representing one kind of district. In other words, that the district is very homogeneous. There may be some value in having more heterogeneous districts, somewhat more urban, suburban, exurban, or rural, and have a mix of those kinds of things."

That’s how the districts were drawn 10 years ago, but some of the distorted shapes indicate that they might have been gerrymandered. Reeher says scholars and others have suggested drawing districts that yield more competitive elections. But again, that might run into the same problem.

"That sounds fine on it's face, but it's not clear to me that it's necessarily more democratic, with a small 'd.' Having simply elections that are more competitive, you're reasoning backward from the outcome that you want, and then you're beginning to draw up the districts accordingly. That's different than saying 'we should preserve the integrity of this town' when it comes to a legislative district."

He says competitive districts are also likely to produce more moderate legislators who try to appeal to both parties. That could be good for the legislature as a whole. At the same time, Reeher wonders if it’s better to have voices on both sides who work through policy and find compromise. Again, there’s no obvious, correct answer.

The redrawn maps are now in the hands of the county executive, who could choose accept them as is or send them back for revision.

The final public hearing will be held Friday morning at 11 in the 14th floor conference room of the Civic Center.

Scott Willis covers politics, local government, transportation, and arts and culture for WAER. He came to Syracuse from Detroit in 2001, where he began his career in radio as an intern and freelance reporter. Scott is honored and privileged to bring the day’s news and in-depth feature reporting to WAER’s dedicated and generous listeners. You can find him on twitter @swillisWAER and email him at