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Albany suffers through another political earthquake

New York State politics is maddening and endlessly surprising. Over the past twenty years, three governors have had serious scandals – with two resigning and one fined for lying under oath. A state Comptroller went to prison, previous leaders of the state Senate and Assembly were sent to prison for corruption, and scores of state legislators were punished for violating state laws.

Just two weeks ago, the Lt. Governor resigned after being charged by federal prosecutors with corruption.

And this past week, the state’s top court threw out the political boundaries set for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives and the state Senate. The Capitol shook from that latest political earthquake.

As background, every ten years the nation counts its residents through the census. Every ten years, federal, state, and local governments readjust their political boundaries to reflect population changes. That process – known as redistricting – has long been manipulated by the major political parties to maximize their electoral prospects for success.

That manipulation is known as “gerrymandering,” named for Elbridge Gerry, a 19th Century Massachusetts politician who pioneered the strategy.

In modern New York State political history, the Democrats who controlled the state Assembly drew the lines for themselves, the Republicans in the Senate did the same for themselves. The last time around in 2012, the courts drew up the lines for New York’s delegation to the House of Representatives.

Legal challenges had been filed to challenge these plans, but the courts almost entirely deferred to this arrangement.

Ten years ago, that process was changed. As part of a deal by then-Governor Cuomo, the governor agreed to astonishing gerrymandered legislative maps in exchange for lawmakers agreeing to approve changes to the state constitution. Those changes included mandates that future maps could not be gerrymandered and that a new so-called Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) would oversee the development of new maps for the state and Congress.

As with far too many “reforms” during the Cuomo era, there were problems with the plan, most notably one that the IRC would really be run by the two major political parties, who would have equal representation on the Commission. At that time, critics argued that such an arrangement would lead to gridlock.

And gridlock is exactly what happened. The IRC could not agree on maps and so the Legislature drew them. But this time, both state legislative chambers are run by an overwhelming majority of Democrats. Republicans cried foul and filed legal challenges that argued that the Democrats’ plans were gerrymandered.

Last week, the Republicans won that argument in the state’s top court and now New York’s political scene has suffered an enormous disruption.

The new lines will be drafted by the courts. Thus, candidates do not know at this time whether they live in relevant districts and won’t know that until later this month.

Moreover, the primary for Congressional and state Senate seats has been moved from June to August, and it’s possible that Assembly and statewide primaries will move as well in order to consolidate voting and save taxpayers money – one primary date is cheaper than two.

In effect, the court’s decision has forced a political reset; campaigns that were designed around a June primary now are planning for one in August and whether existing candidates even choose to continue may be determined by the new political boundaries set by the courts.

In addition to immediate changes, the court’s decision has long term implications. The state constitutionally-created IRC will be in place for the next redistricting in ten years and it’s hard to imagine a minority political party ever agreeing to the lines drafted by the Commission. Thus, it is likely that there will be redistricting gridlock, which will force the courts to act again. The 2014 state constitutional change has led to the courts being in charge of redistricting.

That change could have enormous implications this year. The Congress’s House of Representatives currently is run by Democrats with a very small majority. If the 2022 election leads to another close majority, the switch of a small number of seats could determine which party controls the House – which can have huge implications for the nation and the world.

New York’s current controversy could have been avoided if then-Governor Cuomo had established a truly independent commission. In addition, the state’s political representation could have been stronger if the Cuomo Administration had pushed its census efforts; its failure to do so cost the state a representative in the House. Proposed changes to the state constitution, which could have fixed the problem identified by the courts – that the IRC must act in order to avoid intervention by the court – failed at the ballot last November when the Democrats decided to sit out that vote and devote no resources to persuading the public. And finally, the Democrats could have been less greedy – at least according to the state court – in drawing up the lines.

This was a decade-long mess that was allowed to fester. Now the courts will draw the lines, a surprising outcome and one that will be on the books for years to come, with huge shock waves felt inside and outside New York.

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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