Guest Column: “Consent Of The Governed In Chemung County”

by Kathleen Reed

Chemung County is in need of a Citizen’s Organization to voice ideas from the constituents and bring them to the attention of the voters and elected officials. If such a group already exists, is presence is not widely known. 

“Consent of the Governed” was a cornerstone of the Declaration of Independence, and mandates that the structure our representation is built upon reflects the judgement and will of the voters. That cornerstone is based on implementing ideas that come from the Governed, as well as ensuring that representatives are elected by the “one man, one vote” principle. 

According to the SCOTUS ruling Reynolds v. Sims (1964), the apportionment of our current county charter no longer reflects the “Consent of the Governed” that our founding fathers intended. That ruling mandated County Government representation be based on districts of equal population distribution (“one man, one vote”).  Due to significant declines and shifts in population, our 15 districts do not have equal representation aligned with their populations. 

With the upcoming 2020 US Census, Chemung County’s 15 Legislative districts in Chemung County will be long overdue for reapportionment. It is important that Chemung County residents have a significant voice in a new apportionment and structure for our county government.

Moreover… when the existing charter (that is comprised of a Legislature and elected Executive instead of local supervisors) was adopted in 1973, it was not chosen by a majority of voters, but rather a small (<20%) plurality. Nearly 17,000 of 42,000 registered voters did not visit the polls at all in 1973. And 40% of those that did vote declined to support any of the charter and reapportionment proposals.  This left just over 8,000 of 42,000 registered voters (~19.5%) supporting this charter…..with about 7300 (~17.5%) opposing votes.

Reynolds v. Sims was an impetus for the current County Charter. In May of 1971, the Star-Gazette published a detailed chronology of the ongoing question of equitable representation that the County faced:

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It is evident from some of the timeline entries (excerpted below) that the County Board of Supervisors and their appointed Planning Board were unable for years to agree on district borders:

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The Board of Supervisors decided to put plans for reapportionment as well as a new “charter” form of government to public referendum after they were unable to reach an agreement on reapportionment of seats. The charter was defeated by public vote in November 1972. 

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When a combination of four different reapportionment and charter proposals were placed on the ballot in November 1973, the current 15-member Legislature and elected Executive options were finally accepted by less than 20% of voters (a margin of under 1,000 voters).

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So, what can we learn from the 1973 election that resulted in today’s Charter, and what steps can we take in 2020 to improve upon what those 8000 voters decided for us almost five decades ago?

What we can learn: 

  • A full 40% of eligible voters stayed home.
  • Most who did show up at the polls chose other plans or were not satisfied with any of the plans.
  • These results indicate that the current Charter did not reflect the Consent of the Governed

What we can do:

  • Establish a citizens group to explore and draft proposals that would reflect the Consent of the Governed
  • Examine district representation in relation to population distribution
  • Explore the effectiveness and efficiency of the current charter compared to the previous Board of Supervisors
  • Generate a petition for a voter initiative that would require the Legislature to put that recommendation to public referendum.

It would be preferable to get such a public referendum on the 2020 ballot, as historical trends prove that voter turnout is at its highest during national election years.  As an illustration of this trend: the 1972 election where the charter was initially defeated had 39,518 voters visit the polls, which was a Presidential Election year, while only 25,166 turned out in 1973.  

Offering a referendum in November 2020 would, of course, require redistricting borders to be proposed before the 2020 Census is complete. With that in mind, a new apportionment would need to initially be based on estimated population distribution available from the Census Bureau every year.

Although that data is typically very accurate, a provision could be offered to “tweak” the new district map should the current Census Bureau projection vary drastically from final Census reports.  Provisions should also be considered to establish a plan to re-evaluate district representation every 10 years to ensure districting remains equitable. Having a scheduled plan would prevent another 50-year lapse in reapportionment, as we are facing now.

Kathleen Reed is a resident of the Town of Catlin 

2 Comments

  1. This is a well thought out and articulated opinion piece that really makes you think.
    I appreciate the work that went into it and wasn’t aware of most of this information on the charter.
    I agree that maybe it’s time to make some changes.

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Karen.

    My father grew up in Elmira and was fiercely proud of Chemung County, its ties to Mark Twain and the resilience he observed growing up. His parents operated Eldridge Park when he was a boy. He watched this area survive the Great Depression, WWII, the flood of 1946 and Hurricane Agnes…and, like most of that generation, did his part to assist the area through those challenges.
    When he returned to the area in the 1980’s he felt things had deteriorated and dedicated his time to researching the sources of the decline, to almost his dying breath**.
    I may never have the devotion to Chemung County that Dad had….but I’d truly like to see the area revive to something resembling the wonderful place he told me about.

    **Literally, almost his dying breath. At the age of 86, he collapsed while addressing the Chemung County Legislature. After flatlining during the open meeting, he was resuscitated and transported to AOMC, but passed two days later.

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