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New York's consequential week

Control of the next Congress may turn on what happens in Albany this week. Lawmakers will be considering – for the second time – the political boundaries of the state’s delegation to the House of Representatives. How those lines are drawn may well shape the future of the Republic and its role in the world.

Right now, Republicans have a razor-thin majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the smallest in American history. According to the Cook Political Report, New York has six incumbents that are considered vulnerable, four Republicans and two Democrats (both are in districts that “lean” Democrat).

Five of those incumbents won their 2022 races with bare majorities. The sixth, Tom Suozzi of Long Island, just won his old seat back in a special election earlier this month. Thus, whichever political party dominates those New York 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 to defend itself from the unprovoked Russian invasion. Democrats see that matter otherwise. Control of the House may determine the outcome of that war.

Even tiny majorities can have a big impact.

The current slim Republican majority exists, to some extent, due to the Congressional boundaries drawn by the New York courts. Instead of a significant Democratic advantage in the Congressional boundaries, Republicans received a significantly better political landscape from the court-appointed mapmaker. Instead of as many as 22 Democrats heading to the House after the 2022 election, only 15 did. That gave the House to the Republicans.

Those lines were subsequently challenged by Democrats in New York. The fact that the courts established the lines, Democrats argued, should not be for the remainder of the decade. Instead, the state’s so-called Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) should get another crack at it. The IRC was established in the state’s Constitution to handle redistricting. In a Court of Appeals decision last year, (the state’s top court) decided that the political boundaries of New York’s Congressional districts should be redrawn by the IRC.

The IRC’s 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 in the up-or-down vote, 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 itself (currently controlled by Democrats in each chamber) 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 were unconstitutional. 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.

While the courts settled the boundary battle for 2022, 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 year, the court sided with the Democrats, returning the task to the IRC. Two weeks ago, the IRC completed its work and in a 9-1 vote advanced its first plan to the Legislature. The first vote on the IRC plan will be this week. Whether the Legislature will agree to that plan, or kill it, may well determine next year’s House majority.

Given the high stakes in redistricting, it should not be overlooked that the “do over” of Congressional map drawing is the result of New York’s fatally flawed redistricting system – one that relies on the two major political parties to determine political boundaries.

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 live with the consequences of these political deals.

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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