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Albany delivers new district lines for New York

Last week, Governor Hochul and New York’s political leaders agreed on new boundaries for Congressional and state legislative districts. The lines were drawn by the Legislature’s Democratic majorities and the upshot is likely to result in a big hit on the dwindling political clout of the state GOP.

Redistricting is a once-in-a-decade exercise in which a state’s political boundaries are adjusted to reflect changes in population. That process starts off with the census, which is then followed by “reapportionment” (the process by which the 435 seats in the Congressional House of Representatives are redistributed among the states to reflect the changes in the nation’s population). Reapportionment led to the loss of one Congressional seat for New York as the state’s small population growth did not match that of other states.

Reapportionment is followed by “redistricting” in which state – and then local – officials redraw political boundaries to reflect changes within their jurisdictions. This round of New York’s redistricting was initiated through a new process. That new process was the result of an agreement spearheaded by former Governor Cuomo to take direct control of redistricting from legislators and shift that responsibility to a bipartisan commission.

That commission, however, could not come to an agreement and that failure allowed legislators to step in and draw the new lines themselves. As a result, the new maps were developed by the Democratic supermajorities in each house and approved by Governor Hochul last week.

The new lines favored Democrats. Independent analyses showed that Democrats will have voter advantages in 22 of the new Congressional districts and the new state Senate districts. Republicans howled that the changes were illegal and quickly filed suit to block the plans.

The Republicans’ complaint is correctly based on the fact that the plans do work to the benefit of Democrats; whether the plan is illegal is not so clear.

New York is a heavily-Democratic state – at least when it comes to voter enrollment. And the gap between Democrats and Republicans is growing. Thus, any plan would benefit Democrats. Based on data released by the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, 22 of the 26 new Congressional seats have a majority of voters who preferred President Biden over former President Trump.

Clearly, those lines favor Congressional Democrats – although previous preferences don’t necessarily translate into electoral success – but it doesn’t hurt!

Compared to the previous redistricting, however, the outcome does not look so skewed. Ten years ago, the courts drew the lines for New York’s Congressional delegation when the then-Republican-controlled Senate could not agree with the Democratic-controlled Assembly. Those lines gave Democrats enrollment advantages in 21 districts (out of 27 at that time). And since that time, over 845,000 new Democratic voters have been added to the rolls – compared to only a tiny increase in Republicans, a bit over 18,000 new voters for that Party.

Each Congressional district now contains about 777,000 people and the increase in Democratic voters exceeds that amount.

The Democratic advantage in the state Senate is even clearer – Republicans gerrymandered the heck out of the Senate in 2012 in order to keep their majority. But eight years later in the 2020 election, even with lines drawn by Republicans, Democrats took 2/3 of the Senate districts.

This is not to say that Democrats are not guilty of gerrymandering; it’s pretty clear that their actions have the effect of gerrymandering, or drawing the lines to create political advantage. However, whether they intended to gerrymander and thereby violated the law is up to the courts.

But the impacts clearly underscore the need for reform. No New Yorker should have to doubt whether the state’s political boundaries are rigged. New York needs an independent redistricting commission, not a bipartisan one – particularly the current one which doesn’t work anyway.

The arguments against independence are that other states rig their Congressional maps, thus New York should too – in order to help balance the scales. That argument is logical of course, but it really is an argument for a nationwide reform, not inaction.

The state of California has the nation’s most independent redistricting commission. That should be the model for New York and the nation. Elected officials should not choose their voters, voters should choose their elected officials.

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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