ALBANY, NY – Former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s structural signing change to state government during his first term was an overhaul of political mapping in New York City. A new “Independent Redistribution Commission” “would permanently reform the redistribution process in New York to put an end once and for all to interested partisan gerrymandering,” he pledged.
This bipartisan commission missed its biggest test on Monday, with its 10 members in a 5-5 stalemate over a pair of competing proposals.
“It was a dismal failure,” said Commissioner Ross Brady, who is allied with the Republican members.
This leaves the redistribution process exactly as it was ten years ago. State lawmakers are now likely to reject the commission’s two plans and draw the maps themselves. And success is not a given – Democratic majorities in the legislature need near-unanimity and will have to push back against any legal challenges from the GOP.
But the commission’s deadlock paves the way for the most pro-democratic gerrymandering in the history of New York, the second most populous Democratic stronghold in the country. This could give the party a boost as it seeks to maintain control of the House of Representatives. There is now an easier path for new lines that would help increase the size of the New York Congressional Democratic delegation from 19 to 22 or potentially 23, even if the seat count drops from 27 to 26.
Such a result could have been predictable, in part because a constitutional amendment by the state that created the commission gave the Legislature the ability to vote twice against its lines and then revert to its old charting habits.
“The independent commission was formed as a false positive move by Cuomo because his recommendations do not have to be followed,” said Democratic activist Bill Samuels, who helped lead opposition to the amendment. “By the time it was put in place, most of us said it didn’t make sense.”
The commission came about when former New York City Mayor Ed Koch lobbied for redistribution reform to be the last act of his colorful life. Cuomo had pledged to veto all gerrymandered lines while seeking his first term in 2010. Koch’s activism on the subject made it impossible for Cuomo to renege on that promise without suffering a major backlash. But lawmakers weren’t willing to give up their traditional prerogative, and the amendment to make some changes from the 2020s was the best possible route to downplay the backlash from lawmakers or Koch.
While it didn’t go as far as Cuomo initially promised, the amendment left some guarantees against single-party gerrymandering in place.
Much to the chagrin of other Democrats, Cuomo’s amendment effectively indicated that if the party ever gained control of the State Senate, the new lines would need two-thirds of the qualified majorities in both that chamber and in the United States. Assembly, which the Democrats dominate from Watergate. At the time, the idea of Democrats winning 42 of the 63 state Senate seats was considered highly unlikely. Then came Donald Trump and a wave of blue elections that followed in 2018. Democrats now have 43 seats in the Senate.
The amendment also allowed the possibility that the committee could actually reach an agreement. In this scenario, with Democratic and Republican commissioners gathered around a single set of lines, lawmakers could have faced intense pressure to accept the cards.
But Monday’s vote calls into question whether a committee made up of five Democrats and five Republicans allies, most of whom are appointed by legislative leaders, can ever function as advertised.
“It was not an independent commission… The whole way it was set up was problematic from the start,” said Susan Lerner. of the common cause of New York. Lerner, the executive director of the civic activist group, won a 2014 lawsuit asking a court to block the word “independent” from appearing on the ballot when the constitutional amendment was put to voters in a referendum, arguing that it was misleading to label the commission.
Assuming the Commissioners can’t find a way to strike a deal when they draw a second deck of cards later this month, there are just a few hurdles preventing a Democrat-dominated card-making process.
On the one hand, they will have to stay united. Democrats have the necessary two-thirds majorities in both houses. But they don’t have much leeway either. If blocks of membership – like the handful of Socialists in each chamber – make demands unacceptable to their colleagues, then majorities might have to start seeking Republican votes, which would certainly complicate matters.
But what if they find the votes? The only thing that would prevent Republicans from being taken into oblivion may well be anti-gerrymandering language in the amendment, such as a ban on line drawing “to discourage competition.”
Such language is “far from adequate,” Lerner said. Several lawyers have argued over the years that the only hope of winning a lawsuit over such a sentence would involve Democrats being stupid enough to leave a paper trail in which they explicitly say they are gerrymanding a district. But that’s enough to ensure Republicans don’t surrender anytime soon.
“It’s unprecedented that we have the standards that are now in the constitution, and no court has ever interpreted the standards,” said former US Representative John Faso, a Republican. “So I think it’s a big bet for them if they try to go too far and do extreme partisan gerrymandering.”