Opinions & Observations: NY independent redistricting is an epic flop
New York’s first attempt at independent redistricting was an epic failure, and there is absolutely no joy in saying we told you so.
Voting districts for the state Legislature and Congress are redrawn every 10 years to ensure “one person, one vote.” Districts are adjusted based on population shifts documented by the U.S. Census. After the 2010 census, the Democratic-led Assembly and Republican-led Senate could not agree on a set of maps. A federal court ended up drawing the districts.
A constitutional amendment was supposed to fix all that. In 2014, New York voters agreed to create an independent commission to draw the voting districts.
Except, as the editorial board and many others pointed out, the commission was independent in name only. Eight of its 10 members are appointed by the leaders of the state Assembly and Senate, and the eight appoint two more members. Five Democratic appointees plus five Republican appointees equals deadlock. We urged voters to turn down the amendment, but it passed.
Fast-forward to 2021. As predicted, members of the redistricting commission split along party lines and could not reach a consensus on new district boundaries. Democrats drew one set of maps. Republicans drew another. That throws the final say to the Legislature, now firmly in Democratic Party control.
But we all know the courts will have the final, final say. Why? Because the party in control will attempt to bake in an electoral advantage for the next decade by slicing and dicing voter data to create safe districts for their members. It’s called gerrymandering. It’s wrong when either party does it, in red states or blue states. But we know both parties will try.
And who’s to stop them? The Supreme Court has already said partisan gerrymandering is a political question, not a judicial one, so don’t expect the courts to ride to the rescue.
New York’s redistricting commission will hold a series of public hearings on their dueling maps, including one Oct. 26 in Syracuse. However, members of the public don’t have the tools or the expertise to fully participate. The commission has made it incredibly difficult for them to try.
For example, the commission’s maps are posted on its website in a format that takes hours to download. On the day the maps were released, the website repeatedly crashed. The maps do not provide street-level detail, so people on border lines between districts can’t tell where they would fall. The data files that accompany the maps, which include population and voter information, are in a format only data geeks can understand and manipulate.
You can be sure the political parties have that kind of expertise on speed dial. What chance does an average voter have to influence the process?
The redistricting commission also failed on the substance of its work. It violated rules in the state Constitution that say voting districts should be compact and contiguous, and metro areas and communities of interest should not be split up.
Its maps also are nakedly partisan. For example, Democrats drew a congressional district that would pit Rep. John Katko and Rep. Claudia Tenney, both Republicans, against each other. Republicans drew a state Senate district that would pit Sen. John Mannion and Sen. Rachel May, both Democrats, against each other. Come on.
In fairness, the commission’s work was hampered by late Census data and inadequate funding. But that’s no excuse for throwing up its hands and producing two sets of partisan maps.
After 2010, it was hard to imagine a worse redistricting process. The 2021 independent redistricting commission has matched it — and then some.
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