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Commentary & Opinion

Albany gets a new set of maps

While lawmakers were seeking to wrap up the legislative session, a big issue has been percolating in the courts – how best to draw the new political boundaries for New York’s Congressional delegation and its state Senate.

For those of you who might have missed this, recently the state’s highest court ruled that the district lines drawn by the Legislature violated state law. The court then selected an impartial academic from Pennsylvania to draw new lines that were approved last week.

As background: Every ten years the nation conducts a census to quantify the number of its inhabitants. That count is then sent to the states for each to adjust political boundaries to account for recent population shifts within the state. Local governments then do the same. The idea is to ensure that the nation’s political boundaries allow for more or less equal representation in all levels of government based on recent counts.

Each state has its own way in which it determines how to draw these lines. For most of the country, the political parties establish the lines to maximize the number of representatives from their party. The most egregious examples are called “gerrymandering.” New York has had a long history of allowing the two major political parties to run the redistricting show.

For most of the past 40 years the Republican-controlled state Senate would draw the lines for their House and the Democrat-controlled Assembly would do the same. When they couldn’t agree on Congressional lines, the courts – like this year – stepped in and drew them.

In 2014, a new system was approved by voters, which was first used this year and has failed miserably. A new so-called “Independent Redistricting Commission” was supposed to draw the lines. But with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans, their work ended in gridlock. That gridlock triggered legislative action. Thus, the Legislature drew its own lines. With Democrat-supermajorities in both Legislative houses and with a Democrat as governor, the lines favored Democrats. It were these new legislatively-drawn maps that the courts found unconstitutional.

The new maps unveiled this past week are – certainly to the naked eye – more reasonably drawn. The academic who drew the lines did so using methods to draw the maps in a way that ignored typical political calculations. For example, he clearly ignored the residences of incumbent members of Congress and as a result long-time incumbents will likely face each other in primaries to be held in August. Moreover, there are more districts that are up for grabs, meaning that the districts have reasonably close percentages of Democratic and Republican leaning voters.

Looking at the new maps from a statewide perspective, the districts seem to make more sense. Of course, within those districts, changes of a few blocks can have dramatic impacts. Nevertheless, in some cases big changes have been made and the maps drawn by the courts are now the law of the land.

So unless the state Constitution changes, it seems like the courts will have the ultimate say in redistricting process for New York’s future Congressional and state Legislative political boundaries.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way.

There are other states that offer a model for how New York could fix its state Constitution so that a real independent redistricting commission could have the final say – instead of deals between the two major political parties or through the intervention of the courts.

The best such model is found in the state of California. In that state, any person can apply to be on its 14-member redistricting commission. Applications are reviewed, background checks are conducted, and then 60 qualified individuals are chosen to be part of an applicant pool: 20 Democrats, 20 Republicans, and 20 who do not belong to either of those two parties. The law requires an independent auditor to conduct a random drawing to select the first eight commissioners (three from the Democratic pool, three from the Republican, and two from the independents) and those first eight commissioners are charged with selecting the final six members from the remaining applicants in the pool (using the same representative criteria).

While this may seem complicated, it is the randomness of the selection process that makes it harder for the political parties to rig the outcome. Closer to home in New York, lawmakers will have one of two choices as they consider what to do next: leave the system as is and let the courts be the final arbiter or fix the system.

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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