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NY redistricting proposition draws mixed reviews

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis
New York state Capitol

For the second time in seven years, New Yorkers are being asked on the this year’s ballot to alter the state’s constitution to make changes to the redistricting process, which every ten years draws new lines for Congressional, Senate and Assembly districts. The measure has mixed support from government reform groups.

The last time a constitutional amendment was on the ballot to change redistricting, in 2014, a 10-member commission of five Democrats and five Republicans was created to draw the lines. The two co-executive directors had to be from opposing parties. That commission, now working on new district lines using 2020 census results, is currently deadlocked.

Democrats favor one set of maps, while GOP commissioners support a different plan. A supermajority, or two-thirds, of the Legislature can override the commission and create the new districts instead.

The proposed changes to that system, on this fall’s ballot, would eliminate the requirement that the co-executive directors be from different parties, the commissioners simply have to agree on who they want to lead them. It would require just 60% of the Legislature, not two-thirds, to override the commission’s decisions.

Will it make the process better and fairer?

Susan Lerner, with the reform group Common Cause says yes.

“It’s definitely going to reduce the ability of political parties to manipulate the map-making process for partisan gain,” Lerner said.

Lerner says it also caps the current size of the state Senate at 63 seats to further minimize gerrymandering. In the past, the size of the Senate was expanded to help Republicans hold on to an increasingly slim majority.

But not all government reform groups agree. Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters say the proposition makes redistricting even worse.

The League’s Jennifer Wilson says the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve the new maps should stay. She says it allows for more participation from the political party in the minority, if the Senate and Assembly are closely divided. Wilson says the 60% approval rule would actually strengthen the political party that is in power at the time of the vote. She says the end result would be the Legislature gaining “total” power to decide the new districts.

“And that’s not really a great policy, we used to have our Legislature draw our state Assembly and state Senate maps,” Wilson said. “And we have very gerrymandered districts here in New York State.”

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses of the Legislature, are also against the amendment. GOP Party Chair Nick Langworthy calls it a power grab by Democrats.

“Democrats in Albany apparently aren’t satisfied with the amount of power they have,” Langworthy said. “They want to kneecap this commission in the middle of its work. They have put a referendum in place that would strip a lot of the independence of that commission in the middle of their process on the ballot and are masquerading it as good government.”

The amendment would take effect in January and supersede the rules of the current redistricting process.

Lerner, with Common Cause, agrees that the amendment is not perfect, but she says some of the changes are needed now. The amendment also speeds up the timeline for drawing the maps, to be ready in time for the new June primary date for statewide elections.

“Ultimately, what we’re going to need to do is to change the constitution to have true, independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led redistricting, and we’re going to keep working for that,” Lerner said. “But in the meantime, we can make the process better. And that’s what Prop 1 seeks to do.”

There are also four other ballot propositions, including changes to allow same-day voter registration and universal mail-in balloting, and an amendment to ensure New Yorkers the right to clean air and clean water.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of public radio stations in New York state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.