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The Empire

What will Cuomo get in his quest for an independent redistricting amendment?

Courtesy of the Governor's office.

Jimmy Vielkind of both Albany Times Union and fame hassifted through the redistricting lines debris and tea leaves (I know, it’s hard to picture but it’s metaphorically happening) in a piece up on the aforementioned website. We’ve been on the hunt for much of the same, specifically around how a constitutional amendment fits in to the redistricting end game.

Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office has for months been talking with the leadership in both the State Assembly and Senate about a resolution to the coming crunch over the Governor’s promised veto. Both Speaker Sheldon Silver and Majority Leader Dean Skelos’ offices have confirmed discussions are on-going about including an agreement on a constitutional amendment to hand the next redistricting process over to an independent commission.

The constitutional amendment piece is likely part of a broader effort by Cuomo to bring the redistricting together in a tidy bow. He’s already demonstrated his ability to “evolve” on a thorny issue he’s seemingly painted himself into a corner on.The last, greatest example of this three-dimensional approach was the millionaires tax.

It’s worth reviewing some of the details of proposed independent redistricting legislation from lawmakers last year.

ReshapeNY has a handy comparison PDF showing Cuomo’s proposal next to the bill put forward by Senator Michael Gianaris of Queens and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn. Between these two plans the biggest difference is the control the Governor’s office has over the process

In Cuomo’s bill, the governor’s office gets to appoint half of the eight-person commission responsible for putting together the team responsible for drawing new maps. Additionally, the Governor would make the redrawing commission a state agency—bringing under the executive branch’s authority.

Compare this to the constitutional amendment bill that passed the state Senate last year. Like their colleagues’ bill, the Senate plan gave the Governor no direct input into the process. Unlike the Grianaris/Jeffries bill, the Senate amendment bill gave legislative majority and minority leaders direct appointment of the redistricting commission, with their four picks choosing a fifth, separate person as co-chair. The direct appointment process, versus the twice-removed process in the other bills, gives the appearance of one less step of independence.

On top of this, the biggest difference is the issue of variance. The Governor’s plan would have had each district within 1 percent of the average district size. So, for example, if New York had, say, 1 million people and 100 legislative districts, each district would, ideally, have 10,000 people in it. The Governor’s plan would have allowed district to be as big as 10,100 and as small as 9,900.

By comparison, the current system allows districts in this example to be as large as 10,500 and as small as 9,500 – a potential difference of 1,000 people, versus 200. The Senate’s amendment bill would put this variance allowance of 5 percent, established through a Supreme Court ruling, into state law.

None of the parties privy to the ongoing negotiations would share details, but the fact that they’re ongoing suggests there’s a disagreement. It’s not clear whether the Governor and legislators have resolved their competing visions for the role of the executive branch, the layers of independence, and/or the codification of the allowable district variance.

Getting an agreement hammered out would give the Governor some cover on his veto pledge that, as Vielkind’s article points out, might be put to the test. But getting an independent process in New York, as I’ve written about before, doesn’t mean problems of partisanship just go away.

No magic bullet

So what drove states to move towards independent redistricting? Keesha Gaskins, senior counsel with the good government group the Brennan Center for Justice, says it came from a push back to “the idea that redistricting is a job security program for incumbents.”

“At the end of the day it had to do with the perception by citizens and elected that the redistricting process is improved by coming away from the politics of redistricting,” she said.

This is certainly something with which New Yorkers tired of Albany gridlock and hijinks can sympathize. But, Gaskins noted, just because something is independent doesn’t mean it gets rid of some of the issues faced by voters. Even with all of these steps to get away from legislators having control over the redistricting process, many of the problems facing states like New York can still exist.

“Redistricting is still redistricting, no matter who does it,” she said. “At the end of the day, taking it out of [the legislature’s] hands eliminates that problem, but it doesn’t magically turn it into the perfect process simply the virtue of calling it or making it an ‘independent commission.’”

For example, Republican lawmakers in Arizona were unhappy earlier this year over their ability to pick candidates for the commission. The issue prompted a lawsuit from the Republicans.

In New Jersey, despite Republican Governor Chris Christie’s reported heavy involvement behind the scenes, Democrats were able to get their map approved over Republican objections.

Idaho saw a court throw out all proposed redistricting plans after the commission couldn’t meet its deadline. Now a new commission has to be put together and start all over.