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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. 

•  •  •

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.