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New York’s Next Big Political Battle: Erasing Partisanship in Drawing District Lines

Governor Andrew Cuomo sits with Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie before delivering his State of the State address in Albany.
Governor Andrew Cuomo sits with Senate Majority Leader Andrea-Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie before delivering his State of the State address in Albany, Jan. 8, 2020.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

The winners of Tuesday’s New York races for the state Legislature are likely to find themselves campaigning for reelection in 2022 for a district that’s different than the one they just ran to represent.

That’s because 2020 is not just an election year, but a once-a-decade Census year. Across the nation, state lawmakers will use the results of the Census count to redraw district lines for elected office.

The coming redistricting, expected to finish in early 2022, will be unlike any other New York has experienced.

A bargain struck by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and legislative leaders during redistricting nearly a decade ago amended the state constitution to move from ruling-party control of map-making to a commission that could have greater independence.

The 10-member commission — two appointed by each party in each house of the state Legislature and another two by the members collectively — will hold public hearings before deciding on the new borders to present to the state Senate and Assembly for approval.

In contrast, the current lines were drawn in 2012 in a largely political process where members of the ruling party in each chamber of the Legislature determined what the districts look like.

In the state Senate, then-ruling Republicans added a district to the roster — cramming as many seats as they could into sparsely populated upstate areas prone to electing GOP members.

In the city, they zig-zagged district lines block by block to help protect the Republican Party’s few five-borough senators and their allies. Party hands drew one district, currently held by Simcha Felder (D-Brooklyn), to concentrate Orthodox Jewish voters in sufficient numbers to elect a senator on their own.

In the state Assembly, where Democrats’ majority control has long been secure, leaders used their line-drawing power to reward or punish politicians — in the case of now U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn), redrawing his Assembly district line to exclude his home in 2002.

Now, the hope is, a fairer, less fraught and more transparent process could prevail for the state Senate and Assembly as well as the lines the Legislature draws for congressional seats.

New rules discourage drawing districts to favor incumbents, require that districts have a relatively equal number of inhabitants and aim to keep ethnic and racial communities intact to guarantee political representation.

“It’s untested in that it hasn’t been used before. So part of it is a learning process for everyone,” said Steven Romalewski, director of the mapping service at the Center for Urban Research at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Shortchanged Representation

A less starkly partisan process could tamp down redistricting practices that are legal but baked in lopsided partisan advantages for the ruling party — while also shortchanging New York City residents on their representation.

When Republicans drew the Senate lines in 2012, retaining party control of the chamber even though most New Yorkers are registered Democrats, the lines crammed an excess of voters into districts in New York City and Long Island.

Brooklyn State Sen. Simcha Felder attends a meeting in Albany, March 20, 2019.
Brooklyn State Sen. Simcha Felder attends a meeting in Albany, March 20, 2019.
Photo Courtesy of NY Senate Media Services

Meanwhile, they created underpopulated districts upstate, said Jeffrey Wice, an adjunct professor at the New York Law School who has served on several state and federal redistricting councils.

“That enabled Republicans to get more districts upstate to elect Republicans and fewer districts downstate to limit Democratic gains,” he told THE CITY.

The Senate saw a sea-change shift to Democratic control in 2018, with some of those gains now hanging in the balance as the 2020 results continue to be counted.

Yet the redistricting reforms — approved by voters in a 2014 referendum — don’t completely eradicate partisan advantages in the process.

A proviso in the commission granting the minority party some say gives Republicans influence regardless of which party controls the chamber.

The intricate voting structure of the commission changes depending on the composition of the Legislature, making it difficult to reach agreement without ensuring minority-party support.

That is, unless a party has a “super-majority” of 42 seats in a 63-seat chamber, which would allow them to approve district lines without any support at all from Republicans in the minority.

“With the voting structure as it is right now, there needs to be a certain level of minority-party buy in,” said Jennifer Wilson, the deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State.

Role Reversal

This intricate setup will be put to the test in the coming round of redistricting: Democrats are poised to keep control of the 63-seat chamber for a second cycle following Tuesday’s election, but are likely to fall short of retaining a supermajority needed to thwart Republican influence.

That is, unless Democrats in the Senate and Assembly prevail with another constitutional amendment, rentrenching from the original reform deal nearly a decade ago. This new measure, expected to embolden single-party rule in the process, will likely be approved by state lawmakers when they reconvene next year, according to spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

The new constitutional amendment proposal passed both houses in July but needs to be approved again next year before it can go to voters for approval in November 2021, when New York City will be voting for a new mayor.

The proposal says that if seven of the commission’s members okay a redistricting plan, state lawmakers can approve it with a simple majority. If no proposal gets the support of seven commissioners, then the plan with the most approval is sent to the Legislature, where it must pass with 60% of the votes.

That means that Democrats in the Senate would have an easier time carving up districts in their favor to ensure control of the chamber for years to come — a practice they decried when they were in the minority.

Despite the possible pitfalls, the new system for drawing districts is much more equitable than its predecessor because of the guidelines the commission has to consider, Wilson said.

“Whereas before the rules around drawing the map were like, ‘Do anything you want., Whatever you want to do, do it.’ Now there’s actual rules in place,” Wilson said.

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