New York’s highest court allows a redistricting “do over”
December is usually a quiet time in Albany. The Capitol is buzzing, but most of the activity flies below the public’s radar. Usually, the only visible stirring is around decisions by the governor to veto popular legislation that she doesn’t like. December is a good time to do that since most New Yorkers are focused on the holidays, not the antics at the state Capitol.
Yet, last week big news was made by the state’s highest court, sending shockwaves through New York’s political establishment and reverberating nationally.
In a split decision, the Court of Appeals decided that the political boundaries of New York’s Congressional districts can be redrawn by the state’s so-called Independent Redistricting Commission. The IRC was established in 2014 as part of the state Constitution and was charged with establishing the political boundaries of the state Senate, Assembly, and New York Congressional districts. Usually drawing district lines takes place once a decade after the U.S. census is released – thereby adjusting political boundaries to account for population shifts.
The IRC was the brainchild of former Governor Cuomo. Its structure allows for equal representation of Democrats and Republicans on its 10-member board, making it a bipartisan commission, not an independent one. In simplest terms, the Commission develops the maps for federal and state offices and then the Legislature and the governor approve or reject them.
Under the redistricting rules, the IRC develops maps and the Legislature then approves them with no changes or rejects them. If rejected, the IRC then develops a second set of maps, also subject to thumbs up or thumbs down vote by the Legislature. If the second set of maps fails to get approval, the Legislature is allowed to draft maps of its own subject to the governor’s approval.
The lines drawn after the 2020 census were the first under this new system. Critics had argued that the bipartisan nature of the IRC would lend itself to gridlock unless the two major political parties could come to an agreement – unlikely when faced with consequential political decisions.
In the debate over the maps for the 2022 elections, gridlock occurred. The IRC could not agree on maps, so the Democratic and Republican members of the IRC sent separate maps to the Democrat-dominated Legislature, which rejected them. Then the IRC could not agree on advancing a second set of maps, so the Legislature stepped in and approved one of their own.
Republicans challenged that decision and in the litigation that followed, the Court of Appeals rejected the Legislatively-drawn maps, saying that they had acted unconstitutionally since they had not received the second set of maps from the IRC. Instead, the court drafted maps of its own for Congress and the Legislature for the 2022 election.
Those court-drawn maps helped Republican candidates in New York and contributed to the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in Washington.
After that election, Democrats challenged those lines in advance of the 2024 election arguing that the court-drawn lines were only for that one election cycle and that the court should allow the IRC another chance to draw lines as required under the state Constitution.
Last week, the court sided with the Democrats and the IRC now has the responsibility to get its plan approved before the end of February in order to ensure that primary campaigns and elections can run smoothly at the end of June.
This is no small matter: Those new lines could have a profound impact on the future of the nation – and the world.
Right now, Republicans have a 4-seat majority in the U.S. House of Representatives (N.Y. Republican Congressman Santos was recently kicked out). According to the Cook Political Report, New York has six incumbents that are considered vulnerable, five Republicans and one Democrat (who is in a district that “leans” Democrat).
All of those incumbents won their 2022 races with razor-thin majorities. Thus, whichever political party dominates those races may well control the House in 2025. Control of the House has obvious national implications, but it also may determine world history. For example, the current Republican House majority has blocked U.S. support for Ukraine as it defends itself from the unprovoked Russian invasion. Democrats see that matter otherwise. Control of the House may determine the outcome of that war.
Given the high stakes in redistricting, it should not be overlooked that the “do over” of Congressional map drawing is the result of the fatally flawed redistricting change in 2014. Allowing the two major political parties to decide political boundaries is like allowing the “fox to guard the henhouse.” That the foxes could not agree is no surprise.
Unfortunately, across the nation partisan actions like in New York are the rule – not the exception. In far too many states, partisan considerations drive the decisions about political boundaries, not what’s best for the public.
Changes are needed both in New York and in the nation. Independent, professionally-run, competent commissions using stringent criteria should be developing the political boundaries of the nation, not those appointed by the political parties. Until that system is put in place, we will all suffer under the current savageries that are the hallmark of the modern American political system.
Blair Horner is executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
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