New York’s efforts to finalize its political boundaries for the State Legislature entered a new phase last week. A Redistricting Commission – made up of equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans – released a proposed map for the New York State Assembly. This proposed map is set for public hearings over the next few months with legislative action to follow. The plan is for the new Assembly maps to be in place in time for the 2024 election.
Most New Yorkers would be excused if they had thought that the redistricting process was already completed. After all, the once-in-a-decade census was completed and new lines were drawn in time for the 2022 election. So, what happened to trigger another round of maps?
In 2012, former Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature approved a plan to establish what they called an “Independent” Redistricting Commission. The plan was advanced as a state constitutional amendment, and was passed in 2014.
Critics at the time argued that the amendment was deeply flawed and would, among other weaknesses, lead to partisan gridlock since the “independent” Commission was not, in fact, independent. Instead, it was a Commission with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans.
In 2021, the Commission gridlocked. The state Constitution allowed the Legislature, with the governor’s approval, to draw up its own lines. The Legislature did that earlier this year.
Republicans challenged in court the Congressional and state Senate lines, arguing that the new districts were unconstitutionally partisan. The state Constitution requires that districts be compact and not favor or disfavor political parties. At that time, there was no challenge to the Assembly lines.
New York’s highest court agreed with the Republicans and the court itself drew up the lines for New York’s members of Congress and state Senate. That decision opened the door to a legal challenge against the state Assembly lines as being equally unconstitutional.
Again, the court agreed, but ruled that since the action was so close to the Election, the Assembly lines drawn by the Legislature in 2022 would stay in place, but that new lines would have to be drawn for the 2024 elections.
So, here we are.
The court ruled that the so-called Independent Redistricting Commission should take a stab at new maps and if it failed the court would, once again, step in.
Last week, Democrats and Republicans on the Commission unanimously agreed to its new maps. The Commission plans to hold a series of 12 public hearings on the draft plan. The first will be Jan. 9 in Buffalo. After obtaining public input, the Commission may revise its maps and submit them to the Legislature to approval. The Legislature can either accept or reject the drafted map. If they are rejected, the IRC would redraw them again. If they are rejected another time, the Legislature could then draw the maps themselves. You can take a look at the current and drafted maps here.
Media reports from across the state have identified major challenges for members of the Assembly. In Central New York, for example, the draft plan would force three state Assembly members to run in newly configured legislative districts where they don’t live. New York requires state Assembly and Senate members to move into the district they represent within one year of an election.
So, are the new maps better? The public hearings will provide useful analysis as to how the proposal impacts communities as well as whether the plan meets constitutional muster.
At the macro level, one thing is clear – the new maps create districts that do not have dramatically different populations. Under the current maps, 39 of the 150 Assembly districts have significant population deviations from the average. Those districts can range from as small as nearly 128,000 people to as large as 141,000 people – a range of 13,000. Under the proposed maps, none of them have such a large range. In fact, 130 of the 150 proposed maps are within +/- 2% of the average.
Numbers alone don’t tell the entire story, but it does mean that the Commission’s mapmakers were far less likely to use population differences to “game” the system.
Our democracy hinges on the principle of “one person, one vote.” Whatever comes of this latest process, that principle must be the heart of any final redistricting plan.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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