Partisan stalemate emerges in New York’s redistricting – Albany Times Union

ALBANY – In 2014, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo put forth a proposed constitutional amendment reforming New York’s redistricting process, some good-government groups predicted the plan would instead result in partisan gridlock.

On Wednesday, that prediction began to bear out: Facing a deadline to release a single proposed map reshaping New York’s congressional and state legislative district lines for the next decade, a 10-member bipartisan panel said they could not. Instead, Democratic commissioners proposed one plan, Republicans another. 

If the gridlock continues in the coming months, it could well empower Democrats who control both houses of the state Legislature — for the first time in decades — to redraw the lines themselves, the very scenario the 2014 constitutional amendment was supposed to remedy.

Democrats nationally have complained of Republicans’ gerrymandering of legislative districts. Yet in New York, where Democrats now hold the state Senate after decades of Republican control, the Democrats see the opportunity for partisan gain that could play a decisive role in 2022’s battle to retain control of Congress.

New York Republicans complained about the outcome on Wednesday, although for decades the party had remained quiet about its own state Senate majority drawing their chamber’s district lines. In  2018, Democrats took firm control of the state Senate, putting state government under one-party control.

“Like everything else under Democratic control in New York, this process is a political sham built on a foundation of lies and hypocrisy,” state Republican Party Chair Nick Langworthy said. “Democrats have no interest in negotiating in good faith as evidenced by their party’s leader (Gov.) Kathy Hochul’s comments she intends to gerrymander Democrats into power. They are going to stonewall and drag this process out hoping New Yorkers aren’t paying attention so partisan legislators can draw their own maps. We intend to employ every legal and political tool in our arsenal to stop them and ensure New Yorkers are fairly represented.”

While Republicans sounded out, leading state Democrats were far quieter about the developments on Wednesday.

The redistricting commission has four appointees of Democrats in the state Legislature and four appointees of legislative Republicans. There are two independent members — selected by the other eight members of the commission — although one of the independents leans Republican, and the other towards Democrats. Indeed, the sides deadlocked 5-5 on the maps, the scenario some good-government groups feared in 2014. 

Those groups wanted an independently appointed commission, rather than a process dedicated by partisan appointees of the Legislature. Proponents of Cuomo’s plan argued a bipartisan process could at least take redistricting out of the hands of the majorities in Assembly and Senate.

Because of the commission’s technical difficulties and the low quality of maps that were available, the Times Union was unable to immediately review the parties’ competing plans on Wednesday afternoon. But based on comments made by commissioners at a hearing in New York City, the plans varied dramatically.

Charles Nesbitt, a Republican appointee to the commission, said that the Democrats’ plans had population deviations between districts “reaching 10 percent.”

“Deviation of that sort has been used in gerrymandering for years,” Nesbitt said.

In a statement, Nesbitt, along with three other Republican commissioners and the “independent” member Ross Brady — an official in the GOP-aligned Conservative Party — released a statement slamming the Democrats’ proposal.

“This commission created by the New Yorkers in 2014 was to put aside partisan difference, working independently as one commission to develop a consensus map,” they said. “We agreed to do so and today our colleagues appointed by the majority members of the Legislature turned their backs on that commitment refusing to confer and come to common ground.”

The Democrats’ proposed maps violate “the redistricting rules as set forth in the United States Constitution as well as the New York state Constitution,” they wrote, presaging possible litigation filed by Republicans.

The commission, which will now embark on 14 public hearings around the state to solicit input on the plans, faces tight deadlines.

In order to formally pass a commission plan, which would then go to the Legislature, seven of the 10 commissioners must vote in favor, including at least one Democrat and one Republican appointed by legislative leaders. The deadline for such a plan to be passed is Jan. 1.

If the seven votes are not reached by the 10-member commission, the competing Republican and Democratic plans would likely both go to the Legislature for consideration, but would not be binding,  according to Jeffrey M. Wice, a redistricting expert and professor at New York Law School. 

In the case of a deadlock, the “Legislature can use plans submitted by the commission, but they’re not required to choose a commission plan,” Wice said.

For the Legislature to draw their own maps under the 2014 constitutional amendment, two-thirds of each house would have to vote in favor, according Wice. That would definitely be possible: Democrats have two-thirds supermajorities in both the Senate and Assembly.

Further complicating the situation is that the Democrat-controlled Legislature has put forth a new statewide constitutional amendment, to be voted upon Nov. 2, which would make it easier for Democrats to draw their own lines. If that passes, only 60 percent of each chamber would need to vote in favor of legislative plans.

While the 10 commissioners have at times worked in a bipartisan fashion since convening last fall — Democrats and Republicans unified in demands to gain long-delayed funding for its operation — the seeds of gridlock have also been apparent. For instance, at one point last year, the commission deadlocked 5-5 over the appointment of their chairperson.

For decades, the drawing of districts has been done by longstanding majority parties in both chambers. Republicans ruling the state Senate drew oddly shaped districts favoring Republicans that helped a party with a declining share of New York’s voter registration retain a toehold of power. Democrats ruling the Assembly drew districts favoring their own Democratic members.

But in 2010, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch led an effort to reform the redistricting process and Senate Republicans — desperate to win back a majority the party lost in 2008 — signed Koch’s independent redistricting pledge. Cuomo, running for a first term in office, vowed to veto district lines that were not drawn by an independent panel.

But after Senate Republicans won back a narrow majority in the 2010 elections, they soon backed away from their pledge. In 2012, Cuomo agreed to allow Republicans to draw their own district lines one final time, but Republicans agreed to pass a constitutional amendment creating a bipartisan redistricting process. Voters passed the constitutional referendum in 2014.

The situation has now shifted again because Democrats, aided by voter enthusiasm opposing the presidency of Republican President Donald J. Trump, resoundingly won back the majority in 2018 — and gained a supermajority in 2020.

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