Robert Zimmerman woke up Thursday on Long Island and headed north to Westchester for a breakfast meeting at the Port Chester Coach Diner.
It’s been a frequent trip in recent months for Zimmerman, a Great Neck Democrat running for Congress in a strangely shaped district stretching from the north shore of Long Island, through a small coastal strip of the Bronx and into the city’s northern suburbs.
Or, at least, he was running in that district. On Wednesday, everything changed.
The Court of Appeals threw out New York’s congressional and state Senate district lines, which were drawn by Democrats earlier this year and ruled to have violated a constitutional ban on drawing maps to benefit a particular party. Now, candidates and election officials in every corner of the state will have to deal with major uncertainty as a court-appointed “special master” draws new districts, with nobody quite sure what they will look like or even when the primary election will be held.
It could have major implications for candidates who had just gone through the laborious process of collecting petition signatures to get on the ballot in districts that now now longer exist, as well as for local governments who – based on the court’s ruling – may have to come up with funding to pay for two separate sets of primary elections.
For Zimmerman, that means he’s going to continue campaigning in Westchester – even if there’s a chance it may not be in his district in the end.
“The one thing we all can learn from this experience is we shouldn't waste our time trying to predict anything,” Zimmerman said in an interview Thursday. “So I'm still going to keep active in the existing district as it was designed, and I assume a good part of it will remain. I'll leave the rest of it to the special master and the political pundits.”
Wednesday’s court ruling threw the state’s political calendar into disarray, with Chief Judge Janet DiFiore and three of her colleagues warning New York’s state Senate and congressional primaries will likely have to be pushed back to August to accommodate the drawing of a new set of maps.
The map-drawing task will fall to Jonathan Cervas, a postdoctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon University. He was selected by state Acting Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister. In an order late Thursday, McAllister gave Cervas until May 16th to draw preliminary maps and May 20th to finalize them.
DiFiore’s majority ruling made clear the courts are on board with a “bifurcated” primary, meaning the governor, lieutenant governor, state Assembly and local primaries would be held as scheduled June 28th, with the congressional and Senate races held later.
The Legislature could decide to set an August primary schedule in compliance with the ruling, or they could let McAllister set the calendar himself. On Thursday, Gov. Kathy Hochul said it was too soon to say whether she would back a single primary or a split one.
“There's time to look at all the options, find out what's best for the voters,” she told reporters in Yonkers. “And then I'll be really looking forward to sharing that with the media.”
It throws everything out the window.
If counties and New York City must move forward with two primaries, election administrators say it will blow huge holes in their local budgets. In New York City, the potential of two primary elections is not just a costly prospect but also a logistical nightmare.
“The decision by the Court of Appeals has huge impacts on the city of New York and the elections overall, both operationally, fiscally and everything in between,” said Vincent Ignizio, deputy executive director of the New York City Board of Elections.
“We just went through a redistricting process, which we have to do again. We just went through a petitioning process, which we have to go through again,” added Ignizio. He also sounded the alarm about finding sufficient early voting sites, since locations like schools may be used by other nonprofits during the summer months.
In the current fiscal year, where the city BOE ran last fall’s general election, five special elections and expected to hold a single primary in June, the agency’s budget is currently $232 million, an increase of $50 million over the adopted budget last June.
In the most recent executive budget proposal from Mayor Eric Adams for the fiscal year starting July 1st, the proposed budget for the city BOE is $95 million dollars less than this year’s -- at just $136 million -- a figure that will inevitably increase with the addition of another primary contest later this summer.
“It throws everything out the window,” said Dustin Czarny, the Democratic elections commissioner for Onondaga County. He said localities will need to wait for the state Board of Elections and the courts to set a new political calendar, which dictates the timeline for everything from petitioning to ballot access.
Czarny estimated that he would need to spend an additional $400,000 to conduct a second primary election, when his county only budgeted enough to conduct one in June.
“The counties are going to have to bear the cost,” he said. “It’s quite a heavy lift.”
The court ruling was a major victory for Republicans in New York and nationally. They successfully argued in court that the congressional maps – drawn by Democrats in the state Legislature – were crafted to give the Democratic Party an edge, in large part by putting pools of registered Republicans together in some districts and splitting them up in others.
As the Democrats drew the lines, 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts would have had a Democratic enrollment edge, giving the party hope it could flip two or three of the eight districts currently held by Republicans. On the state Senate side, the maps would have given an additional two districts to New York City, though the court threw those maps out not because they were gerrymandered but because Democrats didn’t follow proper procedure for drawing them. (The state Assembly maps will remain in place only because nobody decided to challenge them.)
But now, the logistical uncertainties of a district-less election will affect candidates of all parties, who now await Cervas’ maps to see where their district will end up – and if they still have a viable path to victory.
While Zimmerman said he will continue to campaign based on the Democrat-drawn map, Langworthy said he would advise his candidates to adhere to the state’s current district lines – drawn in 2012 and expiring this year – for the time being. It’s more likely the special master’s maps will be based on those lines rather than the since-tossed Democratic lines, Langworthy said.
But even then, it may be a better strategy to pull back from the public-facing campaign trail, Langworthy said.
“I don't have any more answers than your guesses and we probably would encourage candidates to probably do more fundraising than glad-handing right now,” he said Thursday.