Expert New York State Bar Association Panel Weighs in on How To Move Forward With New York’s Redistricting Plan
New York’s political world was turned upside down this year but it was not by a scandal or a resignation or an indictment. It was something much less salacious – the New York State Court of Appeals rejected the legislature’s newly-drawn election districts.
The fallout was swift with new maps created by a court-appointed special master that upended political norms, pitted former political colleagues against each other, eliminated long-standing districts, and created opportunities for upstarts to vie for congressional seats in crowded contests.
The New York State Bar Association put together a panel discussion on the topic that was hosted by Liz Benjamin, veteran political journalist and managing editor at Marathon Strategies. The panel featured Lucia Gomez, political director of the NYC Central Labor Council; Steven Romalewski, director of the CUNY Mapping Service; Jeffrey M. Wice, adjunct professor/senior fellow of the NY Census & Redistricting Institute of the New York Law School and Susan Lerner, director of Common Cause NY.
Wice kicked off the discussion by laying out exactly how New York arrived in its redistricting predicament and why it was so surprising.
Wice detailed how the independent redistricting commission split along party lines and submitted two partisan plans rather than agreeing on one. The legislature rejected those plans, putting the onus back on the commission. “That’s where things imploded and the commission failed to do anything,” explained Wice. “So, the legislature, in its wisdom, with really no other course of action for them to consider, drew maps on its own, because the commission simply failed to do its job.”
The Democratic-controlled Legislature passed plans favoring Democratic incumbents and Republicans launched a lawsuit.
Experts expected the court would give the legislature the benefit of the doubt as it had previously. But that isn’t what happened. Instead, the New York State Court of Appeals ordered that a special master take over the process, which led to the new maps.
Lerner talked about how to prevent similar problems when redistricting begins again in 2030. He pointed to Ohio and Florida, states that have strict constitutional standards on redistricting that are not followed. In Ohio, the legislature has repeatedly submitted maps that do not meet constitutional standards despite rebukes from the court. And in Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has submitted highly gerrymandered maps that ignore constitutional standards but are expected to be adopted because the courts are politically sympathetic.
“We need more than strict constitutional standards,” said Lerner. “We need a system that works to actualize these standards.”
Lerner said that while there are no perfect systems, the closest to perfection comes from independent citizen-led commissions that are either non-partisan or have partisan balance. She pointed to California and Michigan’s redistricting models. Lerner said she considered Michigan’s process successful because both parties sued to challenge the maps they created and in California no one sued.
Lerner acknowledged that a successful system requires a complicated appointment process that utilizes strict vetting and a randomized selection process to ensure that there isn’t political interference.
Syracuse recently adopted an independent redistricting commission made up of 15 citizens. Lerner says it is a model that New York should adopt because it removes political influence from the redistricting process.
“Isn’t the wrinkle that in order to change the process the legislature has to vote?” asked Benjamin, nodding to the fact that independent redistricting is not in the legislature’s political interest. Historically, New York’s legislature has gone to great lengths to retain control over the redistricting process, and without massive voter pressure, it has no reason to do otherwise.
“Right,” said Lerner, “but as we see in Syracuse there are legislative bodies who are honest enough and forward thinking enough to do it, and it is on all of us to start the work now to build the necessary public support for a truly independent citizen-led redistricting process for New York. If we can do it in Syracuse, we ought to be able to do it for the entire state.”