The path ahead on redrawing New York’s Assembly maps

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New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission will carry the mantle of redrawing the state’s Assembly districts, and midterm elections could affect the process. (Vaughn Golden/WSKG)

Last week, a judge ordered New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission, or IRC, to redraw legislative districts for the state Assembly for 2024, after they were ruled unconstitutionally drawn earlier this year.

Michael Li, Senior Counsel with the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program spoke with Vaughn Golden on WSKG’s Politics Tuesday podcast about the path ahead for redistricting, and how Democrats’ performance in midterm elections may come into play.

Vaughn Golden: So the judge in Manhattan, he decided to give the redrawing process to the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission or IRC. Legislative leaders, all Democrats had been pushing for this, but that’s despite the fact that the commission came to an impasse earlier this year, which ultimately led to the long string of events leading up to the state’s highest court invalidating all the maps that were then drawn by the legislature instead, can you explain a little bit about Judge Lawrence Love’s reasoning for giving this panel another shot?

Li: Sure, you know, the reason for the congressional map and the state Senate maps which are redrawn by a special master, the reason that a special master redrew those maps is that they were trying to get the changes in in time for the 2022 elections and there just wasn’t enough time to allow the political process another go at it. And so the court, Judge McAllister in Steuben County said, “I’m gonna appoint a special master” and the special master ended up redrawing the maps. The suit over the state assembly maps came later and it came so late in life, but it was too late to even try to make changes for 2022.

So you’re really talking about changes for 2024. And what Judge Love was that there was enough time since you’re talking about 2024 elections over two years away, to allow the political process to try to draw the maps and that that was optimal that, that it’s always better if the people who are supposed to draw the maps do it because they can hold hearings, and his order sets forth, you know, a robust schedule of hearings around the state that are now required. And so that is intended to, you know, produce a much more responsive map.

Ideally, now, you know, the commission, as you pointed out deadlocked the last time, and it’s, it is a very easy to deadlock commission and deadlock may happen again, but at least the judge felt like, we’re going to try to have these guys and gals do it again.

Golden: Right, right. And so the process that he laid out also requires the legislature and this is part of the Constitution too, the legislature to vote on the maps passed by the IRC, and it gives it the authority to draw new ones, the legislature, if that panel fails. Could you walk us through how lawmakers will get a crack at this, whether they’re voting on the maps or drawing them? And what’s your assessment on where they they may try to drive this process, given what we saw earlier this year?

Li: Well, under the New York Constitution, the commission that draws maps doesn’t have the final authority to pass maps. You can only recommend maps to the legislature and the legislature votes up or down. They can make a few changes, but you know, they vote up or down on the maps and if they, if they vote the map down, the commission will take a second crack at the process and produce a second map and if that gets voted down, the legislature has the authority to to draw its own map. And so you know, if you’re a Democrat, and you like what the commission did, you know, you have your approval, if you don’t like what the commission did, you could vote it down. And at some point, assuming the Democrats remain in control of the process, the government of New York remains under Democratic control, Democrats will have an ability to pass their own map. And that opens the door to lots of sort of, you know, it gives them a lot of control of the process for both good and potentially bad. But you know, that that’s the way that the process in New York works, now. The potential hard place in this is that, as I said, like the commission, it’s very easy to deadlock the commission and you could see the commission deadlocking again…

Golden: Right, because we saw earlier this year.

Li: … because it didn’t pass maps for the legislature to consider then, you know, arguably a court needs to step in and do all the math.

Golden: Right and really, the atmosphere around this hasn’t hasn’t changed, though, because that incentive to deadlock it is still there, despite getting another shot at it, right?

Li: That’s right. The New York reforms, a weakness is that it’s very easy to deadlock and, the people who are appointed aren’t aren’t fully independent, right? They’re people picked purposely by legislative leaders, presumably because they will, they’re very politically attuned, perhaps even will do what legislative leaders want.

And so, you know, that’s in contrast to a state like California, where you have a very independent selection process that legislative leaders don’t really have a lot of role in that process and you end up with commissioners who are much more removed from the political process, and that tends to go better. New York’s has a number of problematic design features, which got us in the mess the last time around, it might get us in a mess this time around as well.

Golden: Right. So the judge’s order, and the New York constitution stipulate that if one party controls both houses of the legislature, which Democrats currently do, in order to approve the new maps, they must pass with a two-thirds majority. You know, right now Democrats have that two-thirds majority in the Assembly, and they just barely have it in the Senate. This, and this is this is speculative, but could you reasonably see a scenario where legislative leaders push to approve maps in a special session later this year, if they ultimately lose one of their two-thirds majorities in elections in November before that, that legislature is then seated in January?

Li: I think that’s not very likely a scenario or if they do, I think it will run afoul of the courts, because the court was very specific that the commission needs to propose the maps and the legislature needs to vote on them. And that’s not supposed to take place until 2023 after this year’s elections. You know, the legislature hijacking the process is what got the maps struck down in the first place. And so, you know, I guess anything is possible in New York, you know, people will oftentimes repeat the same mistake again.

But, you know, I think, you know, I think they’re sort of in a rock between a rock and a hard place. I do think, like, if control is divided, you know, maybe the dynamics are, you know, they don’t have the two-thirds majority, you know, maybe the dynamics in that instance, lend themselves a little bit more to, to compromise, right? Because if Democrats have a two-thirds majority in both houses, you know, their incentive is to try to vote down the commission-drawn maps as they don’t like them, and then do a gerrymander, and they can pass that gerrymander with a two-thirds majority, if they don’t have the two-thirds majority necessary to pass it, then they have to compromise in order to get to a map or a court will draw the map.

And so I do think like, Democrats not having a two-thirds majority in one or both of the houses, changes the dynamics a lot and perhaps means that you do end up with with something reasonable, you know, whether it’s a reasonable commission map that the legislature passes or whether the legislature passes its own version of a compromise. Because, you know, it’s only the extensive where, you know, the reason we got into this problem is because Democrats have the ability to gerrymander, they may not have the ability to gerrymander after the next election.