Lawmakers return to Albany this week and both houses will be holding a joint hearing on the state’s redistricting process.
Every ten years since 1790, the U.S. Census identifies the number of Americans and where they live. It does so in order to allow for a reapportionment of Congressional districts. The United States is a representative democracy and thus each district in the House of Representatives must contain as close to the same number of people as mathematically possible. The census allows for a once-in-a-decade realignment of those districts in order to ensure equality of representation in the Congress. Thus, as the nation’s population grows and moves to other parts of the country, Congressional political boundaries are adjusted for the 435 seats of the House of Representatives. Congress doesn’t get bigger with population, but the congressional “pie” is split up to ensure each district has the same number of residents.
The census is also used by states and local governments to realign their legislative boundaries to reflect changes in their jurisdictions’ populations. This is called redistricting. In New York, the state Constitution provides that the Legislature draft those changes, with the approval of the governor. Until recently, a political process has been in place in which the State Senate and State Assembly majority parties drew maps for their respective houses and agreed to not interfere with the map drawn by the other house for its members.
Since the mid-1960s, there has been debate over whether the Legislature should be allowed to draft their own district lines. The debate has centered on the role that redistricting has played in limiting the electoral options for voters. Reformers have long complained that politicians choose their voters instead of it being the other way ‘round. Politicians claim they’re uniquely qualified to understand the needs of their communities and represent those interests. In short, has redistricting in New York resulted in disenfranchised communities and rigged elections that limit competition?
That debate came to a head in 2012. The governor was threatening to veto any maps that he thought were “Gerrymandered,” meaning the district lines had been drawn for clear partisan political advantage. In the run-up to the redistricting decisions, Governor Cuomo and the State Legislature agreed to allow the Legislature to continue to draft its own maps for 2012 while putting forward a constitutional amendment that would make changes to the redistricting process in New York starting with the 2020 census and 2022 redistricting.
Those changes were approved in a statewide vote in 2014. However, there have been significant changes since then – most notably the change in the primary date. First, the 2014 amendment to the Constitution established a redistricting commission to conduct its work using a prescribed timetable.
After the commission members are appointed, it is to submit to the Legislature its redistricting plan and the implementing legislation no later than January 15, 2022. The amendment then allows the Legislature time to review the plan. If the Legislature rejects it twice, legislators are empowered to draft their own plan without the commission.
While it’s not entirely clear what the timetable is for finalizing a plan if the commission’s plans are rejected, it is likely to take until March of 2022, at the earliest.
In 2012 when the plan was first conceived, state office primaries were held in September. Now those primaries are held in June, with petitions to get on the ballot circulating in February. The Constitution’s timetable may result in candidates gearing up to run for office, but not knowing in which Senate or Assembly district they live since the lines may not have been finalized.
Second, the commission is required to hold hearings and make available draft plans for public comment. According to the constitutional amendment, the commission must allow public access to its redistricting data by September of 2021. What lawmakers did not consider was how that timetable would be affected if the Census failed to get its information out in a timely fashion.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. Census cannot get its count of the American population fully conducted and has asked the Congress to allow it to delay submitting its population data to the states until July of next year – months later than normal. Getting the census data late will make it extremely difficult for the commission to meet its state constitutional deadlines.
In addition, the constitutional amendment of 2014 left in place unconstitutional provisions adopted way back in 1894, provisions that violate the “one person, one vote” requirements of federal law. While these provisions cannot be fully used, parts of those provisions are used by state mapmakers to twist districts to benefit the two major political parties. The courts have been unwilling to block those moves, so allowing these anachronistic provisions to stay in the Constitution undermines redistricting fairness.
Outside of these complicating factors, there are fundamental flaws in the state’s redistricting. The commission itself is not independent – it’s appointed by the legislative leaders. And, unlike the drawing of Congressional boundaries, which require that districts contain nearly the exact number of people, New York’s system allows up to a 10 percent variation in population size. This provides yet another tool for mapmakers to rig the system to benefit the political parties.
These issues highlight the value in the Legislature holding the hearing this week. How political boundaries are drawn is central to how well our democracy functions. Lawmakers have time to fix redistricting. This hearing should help inform their thinking and ensure that they will.