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Commentary & Opinion

New York State's Redistricting Commission's Early Gridlock

New York’s redistricting commission unveiled its constitutionally required first drafts of new political boundaries for Congress, state Senate and state Assembly districts. New York’s constitution sets September 15th as the deadline for the first sets of commission maps. That release is to be followed by a series of public hearings to get input on the proposal. After receiving that input, the commission develops a formal plan for submission to the Legislature for consideration in early 2022.

Redistricting follows the Census – the once-in-a-decade process for determining the population of the nation. The U.S. Census Bureau then sends the finalized population data to the states so that they can adjust their political boundaries to reflect population changes within their localities over the past ten years. In New York State, the overall population increased since the last census in 2010, but within the state some regions grew in population and others shrank.

The state’s redistricting commission is charged with developing plans to be presented to the Legislature for how New York’s Congressional and state legislative boundaries must change to ensure that districts have similar populations.

It’s a complicated process, made worse this year by the COVID pandemic and the bumbling of the Trump Administration. As a result, the commission received its data months late, so only had one month to prepare draft maps for public consideration.

This year marks the first time that New York has relied on a redistricting commission to develop its plans. In decades past, the maps were developed by a state legislative committee. Supporters of the creation of this new system insisted that it would lead to an independent process. Opponents argued it would not.

So far, the opponents are right.

The commission’s membership consists of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans picked by the legislative leaders. Not surprisingly, that partisan make-up led to gridlock. As a result, the commission released two sets of maps last week – one from Democrats and one from Republicans.

Of course. The theory that an equal number of Democrats and Republicans on any board leads to what’s best for the public has long been debunked. You need look no further than the much-maligned state Board of Elections to see that equal representation of the major parties often leads to gridlock, at best.

But when it comes to mapmaking, demography is destiny.

The multi-decade loss of population in upstate New York – particularly in the upstate areas between Buffalo and the Hudson Valley, continued since the last census. As a result, those areas should expect to see legislative and congressional districts expanded geographically in order to add population.

Downstate and Hudson Valley areas should see districts shrink geographically, as those districts need to shed population. Overall, the political representation should move toward the New York City metropolitan area, as it has in recent decades.

But how those district lines are drawn matters. The Democratic plan appears to result in a reduction in Republican Congressional seats, for example. According to one estimate, under the Democratic plan, the Republicans could lose as many as five representatives out of their total of eight now. To some extent, that should be expected – New York voters have become increasingly Democratic, particularly during the Trump years.

And in this year’s redistricting, the stakes are incredibly high. The House of Representatives certifies the presidential election results and historically it’s been a formality. No one in modern times had ever expected a sitting President to back a coup attempt to overturn the election results. Whether a House Republican Speaker would have stood up to that illegal attempt is unknown of course; it was a Democratic House Speaker and majority that rejected those efforts.

In addition to shaping politics for the next decade, the lines drawn now – here as well as in states across the nation – may well determine which political party controls the House when it comes to acting on the Electoral College votes in 2024. How lines are drawn this year could determine the course of American history.

Those stakes are staggeringly high.

At the end of the day, it will be up to New York’s Legislature and the governor to approve the final plan. And with Democrats holding super majorities in both houses of the Legislature and control of the governor’s office, expect them to muscle through lines as they see fit.

It didn’t have to be this way. A truly independent redistricting commission would have drafted lines without partisan consideration. But that didn’t happen, and we will soon see how this bipartisan system works out.

Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors.They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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