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NY Republicans challenge new district maps approved by Democrats

New York state Capitol
Jim Levulis

Republicans in the New York State Legislature are threatening legal action now that the Senate and Assembly have approved new district maps for congressional and legislative seats that the GOP says are blatantly gerrymandered. Republicans plan to mount a legal challenge and they believe that this time, they might have a chance to win.

The new maps were approved by the Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature after Republicans voiced their complaints over districts that will result in 4 Republican state senators squeezed into 2 districts, and forced to compete against each other.

The maps also redraw the districts of 4 of 8 GOP congressional representatives to add more Democratic voters, which will likely make it harder for them to win reelection in November.

The Democrats drew the maps after a bipartisan commission gridlocked and could not agree on one set of maps.

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Andrew Lanza called it the “greatest power grab ever” that he says comes at the expense of the people of New York.

“Gerrymandering is just not some funny expression that we talk about,” Lanza said. “It means the voters were screwed. That’s what gerrymandering means. It means the voters were used as pawns to serve one party.”

Republicans are no strangers to manipulating districts to help their party keep in power. For decades, when the GOP controlled the Senate, they jointly drew the maps with Democrats who lead the state Assembly. Each party allowed the other to retain their dominance in their respective houses.

It’s not only Republicans who are critical of the maps.

During debate over the new congressional district lines on Wednesday, Senator Tom O’Mara quoted an assessment from redistricting expert Michael Li with New York University’s Brennan Center to bolster the GOP’s argument.

“He’s been quoted as, ‘I think the maps that are proposed in New York for Congress really, in a lot of ways, are a master class in gerrymandering,’” O’Mara said. “‘They take maps that were very responsive and had a lot of competition, and they take out a number of Republican incumbents very strategically.’”

“That gentleman is mistaken,” answered Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who defended the maps during debate.

Gianaris says the maps are drawn fairly, and that many of the changes were made to fix the results of Republican gerrymandering in the past.

Li, in an interview, says the maps are gerrymandered, and would not stand up to the standards in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that Democrats in Congress hope to pass.

“There’s no question that this map has a lot of partisan bias in it and that it’s a problem,” Li said. “The real question I think is whether courts are going to be willing to wade into that, and how much time they are going to need to do that work.”

In past decades, the state’s courts have sided with the Legislature over challengers to the maps. But this time, because of a change to the state’s constitution in 2014, the districts cannot be designed to help or harm incumbents or quell competition.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, says that might give challengers a shot.

“What’s relevant is the fact that there are now stated criteria in our state constitution,” Lerner said. “Previously all the constitution said was the legislature gets to draw the maps.”

Lerner calls the maps a “major disservice to voters.”

Li says it remains to be seen whether the judges on the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will decide to take on what could be a time-consuming case.

“None of these judges have had a case that’s anything like this before,” Li said. “So this is uncharted territory.”

He predicts that the maps, signed by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul Thursday night, will remain in place for at least for the 2022 elections.

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.