New York’s next redistricting cycle won’t happen for another decade, but Rep. Ritchie Torres of the Bronx plans to introduce two bills on Monday that would make the appointment of a special master a “last resort” in the redistricting process while ensuring any mapmaking software undergoes rigorous scrutiny.

Torres, a Democrat, said he was not pleased with the state’s disastrous redistricting process this year: A court-appointed special master redrew congressional and state legislative maps after maps drawn by the Democrat-led state Legislature were deemed unconstitutional. The ruling was the result of a lawsuit filed by Republicans accusing the state Legislature of approving maps that favored Democrats. Those maps were created after the state-backed redistricting commission failed to agree on new district lines.

One of Torres’ bills would mandate courts give state lawmakers or the redistricting commission a chance to exclusively correct congressional maps before hiring a special master. Only if lawmakers fail to redraw congressional maps to the court’s satisfaction, would a special master be appointed.

“It should have at least one opportunity to cure whatever constitutional or statutory violations have been found by a court,” said Torres, who already introduced a bill calling for more redistricting hearings. He also said the appointment of a special master should be a “last resort.”

In April, Jonathan Cervas, a Carnegie Mellon post-doctoral fellow from Pennsylvania, was hired to redraw the maps that were released last month. Torres said the move subverted the powers of state lawmakers and there was “nothing remotely democratic about an out-of-state special master” to determine New York’s “next ten years of congressional representation.”

Jeffrey Wice, a professor at New York Law School who specializes in redistricting, said the proposed legislation is a “good bill” that would “avoid part of the fiasco we’ve seen this year with congressional redistricting in New York.”

A court should always give the Legislature the first crack at fixing the plan. The courts should never take it upon themselves
Jeffrey Wice, professor at New York Law School

“That’s why it was so surprising and disappointing that the New York state court couldn’t find a way to send the remedial line drawings back to the Legislature. That’s always been the case in the past [and] across the country,” Wice said. “When I explain to people the roles of the courts, I’ve always said that a court should always give the Legislature the first crack at fixing the plan. The courts should never take it upon themselves — and [other] courts have even said, ‘This is not our job. This is the job of legislators or [a] commission.’”

Torres’ other bill would require any mapmaking software used by the state Legislature, commission, or court-appointed mapmaker to be peer reviewed first. That review would be conducted by the cybersecurity and infrastructure security agency under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

The inspiration for the bill came after Sean Trende — a senior elections analyst at RealClearPolitics and a key witness in the GOP’s lawsuit against the state — testified in a lower court that the initial maps were likely gerrymandered. Trende concluded this after he ran thousands of computer simulations of New York’s maps using a software program with an algorithm that hadn’t yet been fully peer reviewed.

Trende told Gothamist that the algorithm is “undergoing peer review, but that process has not been completed yet.”

“I don't have a problem with requiring that an algorithm complete peer review before being used in redistricting litigation, but I will note that this algorithm has been used in multiple redistricting cases across the country, including in Ohio, North Carolina and Kentucky,” Trende said. “I'm also extremely skeptical that any of the other algorithms floating around out there would have yielded a different result in New York.”