The days of partisan gerrymandering were supposed to be over.
Never again would New York lawmakers exclusively draw the state’s U.S. congressional districts or their own state district lines, a decennial process that Democrats and Republicans had used for generations to tighten their grip on power.
Instead, the task would be put to the newly created Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) – five Democrat-aligned and five Republican-aligned members who would put their heads together and reach consensus.
That’s what the people of New York were told back in 2012. It didn’t work out that way.
WNYC reporter Jon Campbell chronicles just how attempts to independently draw new district maps collapsed:
The IRC imploded this year, its first leading the redistricting process, failing to reach consensus as the even number of Democrats and Republicans on the panel deadlocked. That paved the way for state lawmakers to draw the maps themselves – repeating what they had done for generations before, using their influence to benefit incumbents or a particular party.
The Democrats, who now control both the state Senate and Assembly, took full advantage, approving new congressional lines Wednesday that will give their party the edge in 22 of the state’s 26 districts for the next ten years – unless Republicans can get them overturned in court. On Thursday, they’re expected to approve new Senate and Assembly lines, too.
The path to New York’s latest redistricting process has led to accusations of gerrymandering and abuse of the system from good-government advocates and Republican lawmakers, who – ironically – helped put the “independent” redistricting plan in place back when they controlled the Senate in 2012.
It has all left many Albany watchers – and even some lawmakers themselves – to draw the same conclusion: The new redistricting system, a decade in the making, was set up to fail.
“Of course it was,” said Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, a Queens Democrat who led the drawing of the new district lines. “When you have an equal amount of people from either side, you are inevitably going to get a deadlock or a tie. And that’s exactly what happened here.”
A Once-A-Decade Task
All states are required to redraw their congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years to account for population changes identified by the most recent Census. Prior to Wednesday, the last time the lines were redrawn was 2012.
At that time, the concept of taking the state’s redistricting process out of lawmakers’ hands was championed by former New York City Mayor Ed Koch.
Koch made an issue of it in elections leading up to the process, having candidates big and small sign a pledge in 2010 to support an independent process in 2012. But despite hundreds of lawmakers supporting Koch’s pledge – those who didn’t were labeled “enemies of reform” – Senate Republicans and Assembly Democrats drew the lines themselves anyway.
Then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed them into law, despite previously pledging to veto any maps he found to be hyperpartisan. But he extracted a wide-ranging deal in exchange for his signature, which in part included a constitutional amendment (later approved by voters in 2014) that created the Independent Redistricting Commission process.
“We finally made real reform to the broken process of legislative redistricting,” Cuomo said on March 15th, 2012. “What has happened every 10 years for the history of our state will never happen again.”
At the time, good-government organizations that had long been pushing for change were split. Some thought it was an important step, positive movement toward removing lawmakers from the redistricting process.
But others, including Common Cause New York, opposed the plan. The commission was destined for gridlock, they argued. And if lawmakers rejected the commission’s plan, or if the panel couldn’t reach consensus, it would go right back to the lawmakers to draw the lines.
“When you have an equal amount of people from either side, you are inevitably going to get a deadlock or a tie. And that’s exactly what happened here.”
That’s exactly what ended up happening this year.
“I was hoping that I would be proven wrong,” said Susan Lerner, Common Cause’s executive director. “And instead, I was repeatedly proven right. There’s no satisfaction in that. The process was flawed from the start and indeed has played out as we thought it would.”
Lerner said she’s disappointed in the outcome, even if she saw it coming. She pointed to states like California and Michigan as the gold standard for independent, citizen-led redistricting, and even the city of Syracuse, where a 15-member citizen panel is drawing the city’s lines.
She said she's even more disappointed that there was little opportunity for public input on the Democrats’ plan; the proposal for congressional lines was just released on Sunday ahead of the Wednesday vote, despite community groups pressing for a hearing.
“We are not surprised by what we are seeing,” Lerner said. “This is what a partisan gerrymander looks like.”
Gianaris has become the Democrats’ main redistricting spokesperson, and he defended the congressional plan during Wednesday's debate on the Senate floor.
He takes issue with those who say his party is engaging in gerrymandering. New York is a heavily Democratic state, after all, with more than twice as many Democrats as Republicans. And with Republicans controlling the Senate for much of the previous century, Democrats were put in the position of correcting previous Republican gerrymandering, he argues.
In terms of public input, Gianaris pointed to numerous public hearings held by the Independent Redistricting Commission. And he pointed to the fact that the state is on the clock: Ballot petitioning for the June 28th primary is slated to begin March 1st and districts need to be in place well before then, to ensure candidates are collecting signatures in the right place.
GOP Helped Put Process In Place
As far as the process goes, Gianaris says he’s only playing the cards he was dealt.
The 2012 redistricting deal was struck by Cuomo, then-Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Democrat, and then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Republican. Senate Democrats didn’t even vote on it back then; they walked out of the chamber in protest.
“People are right when they say this process was designed to fail, but it was designed by the Senate Republicans with Governor Cuomo 10 years ago,” Gianaris said in an interview with WNYC/Gothamist. “So we were dealing with what we had in front of us.”
Republicans say that’s nonsense. They point to the 2014 referendum in which the redistricting system was approved as proof that New York voters wanted lawmakers out of redistricting, and they’ve accused Democrats of tanking the “independent” process in order to draw the lines themselves.
“To say that is absurd,” said Nick Langworthy, chairman of the state Republican Party. “There was balance in our government 10 years ago. Nothing got done without Silver and the Senate Republicans and the governor.”
The congressional lines will now go to Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul to approve or veto, as will the state legislative lines after they’re passed Thursday. She’s widely expected to sign them into law.
A Lawsuit Is Coming Soon
Republicans, meanwhile, intend to sue, and they’re likely to cite some of the constitutional changes approved by voters in 2014. Among them was an explicit requirement that districts should not be drawn to favor incumbents or one political party over the other.
Langworthy said former U.S. Rep. John Faso of the Hudson Valley and Ed Cox, the former state Republican chairman, have been working with the National Republican Redistricting Trust to develop a plan to challenge the lines in court.
The national group, which is co-chaired by former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, was created to wage redistricting battles across the country on behalf of Republicans.
“If partisan, gerrymandered districts are prohibited in New York, this whole thing should be thrown out,” Langworthy said.