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The Empire

Redistricting battle shifts from lines to an amendment

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Courtesy of the Governor's office.

It’s official: the sticking point over redistricting in Albany is no longer whether the lines will be drawn independently, nor whether they’ll be less “hyperpartisan” in their second draft, but what the accoutrement tacked on—a constitutional amendment and a pre-emptive statute with similar language just in case the legislature fails to live up to its end of the bargain—will look like.

Now that Governor Andrew Cuomo has admitted he “just lost” the battle for redistricting reform for this year’s lines, it looks like he’d like to turn all attention to the future. So now the big battle has become what a constitutional amendment, and the corresponding legislative backstop, will look like.

An Independent Definition

Last year we started reviewing the different ways independent redistricting could be handled, based on examples from other states. Now, the New York State Senate and Assembly, and their respective Republican and Democratic majorities, have released what they consider an independent process. Here are the important details.

A new 10-person “independent redistricting commission” composed of two members from the majority and minority parties in each chamber will take over in 2021. The final two will be selected by a five-person majority of the commission members. These two cannot have been enrolled in either the Democratic or Republican parties in the last five years. Lobbyists, state workers, or elected officials in the past three years need not apply. Oh, and if you’ve been married to one of these people, you either.

When the commission comes to agreement on the plan, the legislature then gets to vote on it. If they can’t agree to pass it, or the governor vetoes it, the commission gets another crack. If passage isn’t secured a second time, then “each house shall introduce such implementing legislation with any amendments each house of the legislature deems necessary.”

The proposal also has some built-in conflict creators. For example, in the event both chambers are controlled by the same party (i.e. the Senate goes Democrat again), the commission would need 7 of the 10 members to pass a proposal along to the legislature. That will be tough if the four Republican reps on the council decided to vote in a block against a Democrat-majority plan. If the two chambers are controlled by different parties, like they are now, you’d still need 7 votes but the plan would require the support from at least one Senate Republican and one Assembly Democratic rep on the council.

So the commission is made up almost entirely of picks made by the politicians. And the rules for the commission are such that it will likely operate similar to how LATFOR works now—majority leaders in control of the final product—or the minority party will be able to block any plan they don’t like. Either way, the legislature still has the final say over the plans.

Good Government Battle Royale

In the battle of the good government groups, the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union have come down squarely in favor of the legislature’s constitutional amendment.

“For decades, the issue of redistricting reform has been little more than a hope, an idea, a series of bills that never received a vote on the floor of either house, and unfulfilled promises of reform – essentially much partisan posturing and little action,” the groups wrote in a joint statement. “Today, that changes with the introduction of a constitutional amendment that if passed will forever remove the pen from the direct hands of lawmakers who, have too often wielded it for their own partisan purposes, and provide it to an independent commission.”

They went on to laud some of the additional language in the bill: a prohibition on gerrymandering; the recommendation that lines don’t favor incumbents or parties; and the duplication of federal Voting Rights Act requirements.

On the other side is Common Cause, who has and continues to call on Cuomo to veto whatever lines the legislature sends to his desk.

“The proposed Constitutional Amendment is a far cry from independent redistricting, with final approval of the maps squarely in the hands of the legislature. This is not reform let alone even an improvement. This is change for change's sake,” Susan Lerner, the group’s executive director, said in a statement. “The so called ‘independent commission’ is not independent at all, but rather a proxy for the Legislature. In the end, this is an attempt to memorialize a system where both parties run roughshod over the voters.”

Among their mayor complaints as the fact the legislation that counts prisoners in their previous homes doesn’t appear in the new language, nor does any change to the 19th century formula used to determine the number of seats in the Senate.

If there were a tie-breaker in the debate, it came from NYPIRG late this afternoon.

“As an organization that has spent decades advocating for reforms to New York’s broken redistricting process, NYPIRG believes it is momentous that there is a proposal to amend the state constitution and enact a state law in this area,” the statement from the group starts out. “A constitutional amendment and law could create a new paradigm for drawing state legislative and congressional districts lines for the future.”

NYPIRG identified key components they were concerned with in a constitutional amendment: “independence of the mapmakers and establishing clear, objective criteria to limit gerrymandering.”

Seeing no language that would guarantee this, NYPIRG came out against the plan.

“[W]ithout the inclusion of stringent objective criteria we cannot say with confidence that it will lead to a better product in the form of fairer district lines that result in greater public trust in the maps.

“Accordingly, NYPIRG’s long-held position does not allow us to support this proposal.”