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What Went Wrong with New York’s Redistricting

The process of drawing new voting maps was a mess, but don’t blame courts.

Published: June 7, 2022

The latest round of redistricting in New York State was a mess, with courts throwing out the maps passed by the legislature, followed by a rushed process to get court-drawn maps in place in time for a delayed primary. In the end, the maps adopted by the court are among the most competitive and politically balanced in the nation — New York is one of only a handful of states where competition increased rather than decreased after redistricting. But the treatment of some communities, especially in New York City, and the lack of time to have a robust, participatory process for input on the new maps left many deeply dissatisfied. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In 2014, one of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s signature accomplishments was the passage of a constitutional amendment that changed the way the state’s political maps are drawn. Instead of the legislature drawing maps, a bipartisan advisory commission would draw maps in the first instance for consideration by the legislature. The amendment also for the first time created legally enforceable protections in state law against partisan gerrymandering. At the time, Cuomo boasted that the amendment would “permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested partisan gerrymandering.”

New York’s experience contrasts with that of states with more robust reforms like California and Michigan, where maps passed on a bipartisan basis (unanimously in California) and were upheld by courts. Here’s a look at three reasons why the New York process produced less than optimal results.

The 2014 New York reforms did not create a truly independent redistricting process.  

Ultimately, most of the problems with how New York’s redistricting played out lie in the design of the 2014 reforms. Despite being described in New York law as “independent,” the changes in reality resulted in a process that remains far more open to political manipulation and is far less independent than those of states that adopted more comprehensive reforms.

In California, for example, applicants to serve on the redistricting commission are vetted by a neutral body and subject to strong conflict-of-interest rules to ensure that commission members are not too closely tied to the political process or elected officials. And while legislative leaders can remove a preset number of names from the list (akin to jury strikes), they have no role in picking members. Moreover, California’s commission, once seated, has final and sole authority to adopt maps. Lawmakers can submit comments or map proposals like any member of the public, but they have no role in approving maps. 

By contrast, legislative leaders in New York directly appoint 8 of 10 members of the commission with fewer limitations on whom they can appoint compared to other states. More importantly, the New York commission, unlike truly independent ones, doesn’t have the final say on maps. Any maps it draws must still be approved by the legislature, and if lawmakers reject two proposals in a row for the same body (e.g., U.S. House seats), the legislature has free rein to enact its own plan.

Despite these shortcomings, the New York reforms might have worked had control of the legislature remained divided between Democrats and Republicans, as it had been for most of the post–World War II period. In the divided government scenario — with Democrats in control of the state assembly and Republicans the state senate — both parties had strong incentives to compromise since neither could pass a map on their own and the alternative was the lesser option of having a court draw the map. (Courts, in general, draw fair maps, but as the New York experience shows, they sometimes make unforeseen choices that create heartburn.)

By 2021, however, New York’s government was no longer divided. Instead, political shifts meant that Democrats held an unexpected supermajority in both houses going into the redistricting cycle. Gone was the need to compromise with Republicans. If Democrats simply voted down commission proposals, they would have a free hand to enact their own gerrymandered maps. The potential for Democratic gerrymandering, in turn, created an incentive for Republican appointees on the commission to deadlock the process. Having no proposals for the legislature to vote down would throw responsibility for map drawing to the courts — an option that suddenly looked much better for Republicans once compromise was off the table. And deadlock is exactly what happened. Democrats tried to end run the deadlock by passing a law allowing the legislature to redistrict in the event the commission failed to complete its work, but courts found the law was contrary to the 2014 reforms. 

In short, a process designed with the assumption of a divided government proved ill-suited for a world of single-party control.

Map-drawing rules were ambiguous.

New York’s map-drawing rules were also part of the problem. Unlike states like California that set out map-drawing rules in considerable detail and in order of priority, the rules added by the 2014 New York amendment are not ranked in terms of importance and are written much more vaguely.

This lack of clarity placed significant discretion in the hands of the court-appointed special master when balancing competing commands, and that created room for disagreement about the choices he made.

For example, both the draft and final maps prepared by the special master drew vocal complaints around the state for dividing up communities of interest that some felt should be kept together.

However, although New York’s 2014 reforms require that a map drawer “consider” communities of interest, they do not define what constitutes a legitimate community of interest. Nor do they provide guidance on when to prioritize preserving a community of interest over other considerations such as compactness — or how to resolve conflicts when one such community conflicts with another. More importantly, despite the passion that communities of interest provoked in comments about maps, the obligation to “consider” is a weak command when compared to other more express and less discretionary directives in the New York Constitution — notably its ban on partisan gerrymandering.

In the end, the special master chose to make significant changes to maps, seemingly in the interest of having compact districts and avoiding favoring incumbents. Given the ambiguity of the language in the state constitution, this was a reasonable choice from among the range of reasonable choices allowed by New York’s rules. But more precise rules might have helped produce less contentious results.

Democrats choose not to participate in the remedial process.

Finally, Democrats themselves bear part of the blame for the way the redrawing turned out because they largely sat the process out.

After Judge Patrick McAllister struck down New York’s congressional and state senate maps at the end of March, he gave the legislature a window of opportunity to enact replacement maps. That’s not uncommon. The accepted rule in both federal and state courts is that if maps get struck down, the legislature or commission that drew the map should have the first shot at enacting a fix. The reason is straightforward: the body that drew the map will have more familiarity than a court with the complexities of a state and is better positioned to craft a remedy that addresses legal defects while balancing various legitimate considerations.

And that’s exactly what happened in Maryland when a circuit court struck down the state’s congressional map as a Democratic gerrymander. Even though Democrats in Maryland disagreed with the court’s ruling and initially decided to appeal it, they nonetheless took advantage of the window allowed by the court to adopt a remedial map that would take effect if the appeal was not successful.

But for whatever reason, New York Democrats chose not to do the same, instead letting the opportunity to control the redrawing pass without action, perhaps hoping it would be too late to redraw the map for 2022 by the time appeals were decided. They then took an equally aggressive line when it came time to submit proposed maps to the special master, offering a map that made very nominal changes to the one found to be constitutionally infirm (and none at all in key areas like New York City). That was their right. But by refusing to redraw the map themselves or offer reasonable alternatives, Democrats left the door open to a more radical reworking of the map. 

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Opponents of redistricting reforms might point to New York to argue against them. While there are lessons to be learned from the state’s experience, the answer is to strengthen reforms, not use shortcomings in the 2014 constitutional amendment as an excuse for abandoning reforms altogether.