In New York before the recent amendment, both congressional and state legislative district boundaries were drawn by the state legislature, which could be vetoed by the governor. A six-member advisory commission assisted in the process. The commission recommended congressional and state legislative redistricting plans to the legislature, which could adopt, modify or ignore the commission’s. proposals.
The members of the commission were appointed by the majority leader of the New York State Senate, the majority leader of the New York State Assembly, the minority leader of the New York State Senate, and the minority leader of the New York State Assembly.
The results of this structure were plain to see by the New York City Bar:
New Yorkers have experienced repeated cycles of self-interested redistricting. The majority party in each house of the Legislature makes an agreement with that of the other house, whereby each majority designs a plan to shield itself from electoral challenge in its own house, and approves the other’s self-serving plan without question. Both houses abdicate their constitutional responsibility to craft districts for the entire Legislature, and for Congress, that are compact, contiguous, equal in population, respectful of municipal boundaries, and fair in their treatment of minority groups.
It was this situation the 2014 Amendment was meant to resolve. The new procedure is as follows:
Beginning in 2020, congressional and state legislative redistricting will be the responsibility of a 10-member commission comprising:
- 2 members appointed by the temporary president of the New York State Senate.
- 2 members appointed by the speaker of the New York State Assembly.
- 2 members appointed by the minority leader of the New York State Senate.
- 2 members appointed by the minority leader of the New York State Assembly.
- 2 members appointed by the 8 commissioners. These 2 appointees cannot have been enrolled in the top 2 major political parties in the state.
There are many issues with the new amendment that completely compromise it.
The noted constitutional scholar Professor Gerald Benjamin provided a report card on the Redistricting Amendment using 14 criteria for evaluation. The result —
- 4 F’s,
- 2 D’s,
- 3 C’s,
- 2 B’s,
- 3 A’s
For an Overall Grade of C-
To Read Professor Benjamin’s evaluation, click here.
The legislature still controls the outcome because it must approve the commission’s plans. If the legislature rejects two separate sets of redistricting plans, or if the governor vetoes a redistricting plan that the legislature approves, it can amend the commission’s proposals directly.
Even worse, if one party simply objects to where the commission is going and doesn’t show up, there is no quorum, and hence, no agreement. So either party as well as the legislature or the governor can undermine any work the commission does.
Cuomo’s historic 2012 Redistricting Constitutional Amendment will still require in 2020 that the number of state senators be determined by using the same 1894 state senate districts as a foundation. Thus, the populations of Queens and Nassau must be combined and Staten Island and Suffolk must also be combined because those counties didn’t exist at the time, and one or another formula or some combination must be used to determine a number that suits the governor and the head of the State Senate. This antiquated counting procedure combined with a completely ambiguous set of formulas is ripe for gerrymandering. For a more complete explanation, click here.
The New York Public Interest Research Group noticed how the Senate and Assembly had been very carefully gerrymandered for the current election:
…upstate Senate districts are systematically underpopulated at a mean deviation of -4.5% from the average size, and downstate districts are overpopulated at a mean deviation of +3.3%. This arrangement effectively creates an additional district upstate (which tends to have higher Republican enrollment) that according to the actual distribution of population should belong in New York City. Finding: In the Assembly, the reverse is true. The agreement between the governor and Assembly Democrats has resulted in New York City districts that are systematically underpopulated at -2.3% while upstate districts are overpopulated at +2.4%. This scheme effectively relocates a district that should belong in upstate New York into the more favorable political terrain of New York City.
Compare these percentages to Illinois has no population deviation at all, and California, Washington and Wisconsin have population differences of less than 1% on average.
There are four basic principles courts consider when judging the validity of districts:
- Contiguityrefers to the principle that all areas within a district should be “physically adjacent.”
- Compactnessrefers to the general principle that “the distance between all parts of a district” ought to be minimized.
- Acommunity of interest is a “group of people in a geographical area, such as a specific region or neighborhood, who have common political, social or economic interests.”
- Political boundariesare counties, cities and towns.
With these principles in mind, it is easy to see that districts in New York have been and still are massively gerrymandered. Here are just a few examples:
State Senate District 46: “Political boundaries?”
- New York State Senator George A. Amedore, Jr., Republican, Conservative, Independent
- The district consists of all of Montgomery and Greene Counties, and portions of Schenectady, Albany, and Ulster Counties.
- What an adjusted total population of 292,750, this district is 4.75% below the Senate district average.
Assembly District 101: “As compact form as practicable”?
• Spans parts of 7 Counties: Orange, Sullivan, Delaware, Ostego, Herkimer and Oneida.
• More than 125 miles long.
• Stretches across New York State down from the Mohawk Valley to the Hudson Valley.
• Covers 25 towns and one small city, Little Falls.
• It follows no major highway. Even a trip on the state Thruway, which will take you well outside district boundaries, is nearly a four-hour drive from one end to the other.
New York State Senate District 51: “As compact form as practicable”?
• Senator James L. Seward, Republican, Incumbent
• Covers all or part of 9 different counties
• More than 130 Miles Wide — nearly 1/2 the Width of the State of New York which is 285 Miles
• More than 145 Miles Tall — almost 1/2 the Length of the State of New York at 330 Miles
• Includes 3 different broadcast media markets
New York State Senate District 23: “No county shall be divided except to make two or more senate districts wholly in such county”
• Senator Diane J. Savino, Independent Democrat, Incumbent.
• Divides Richmond and Kings Counties.
• Two areas in Brooklyn connected by shoreline so that district is only contiguous at low tide.
• Two areas connected by a bridge where the Kings County side isn’t even the District.
New York State Assembly District 138: “As compact a form as practicable”?
• Assembly Member Harry B. Bronson, Democrat, Incumbent
• Creates a District where Republicans living in suburban towns representing the majority of the landmass of the Assembly District are outnumbered 2:1 by Democrats in “the Rochester Hook”
• Carves the City of Rochester into three Democratic Assembly Districts representing the surrounding area
• Divides communities of interest by connecting narrow areas on the outskirts of the City of Rochester with large suburban towns
• Connected in several locations by narrow strips of land with no population
• “For decades, Democrats have controlled the Assembly, and the mapmaking for their own house. That is why the district for Democrat Susan John in the Rochester area looks a little like a teapot. The bulk of her district is in the suburbs, prime Republican territory, but to keep Ms. John in office, the mapmakers added what looks like a curl of steam that runs through the most Democratic areas of Rochester. Without it, Ms. John’s seat could easily turn Republican.” Editorial, “Gerrymandering, Pure and Corrupt,” New York Times, November 11, 2009
New York State Senate District 60: “Consists of contiguous territory”?
• District previously gerrymandered as Democratic District to protect Republicans in adjoining districts by packing Democrats into a divided district that has a Democratic super majority has been gerrymandered back to protect a Republican incumbent that recently won the seat before redistricting
• Two areas connected by shore line so that the district is only contiguous at low tide
• Dropped populations of minorities and others likely to vote Democrat in the cities of Buffalo, Naigara Falls and on Grand Island
New York State Assembly District 13: “As compact a form as practicable”?
• Assembly Member Charles D. Levine, Democrat, Incumbent
• Horseshoe-shaped district skims the shoreline of the Long Island Sound to connect Democrats in Glen Cove, Roslyn, Sea Cliff with Democrats in Jericho and Plainview.
• Almost completely wraps around Assembly District 15 a district packed with Republicans to create in order to create a Democratic district.
• Connected in several locations by narrow strips of land with no population.
Going forward, the Brennan Center has endorsed four basic principles that should be part of any meaningful redistricting proposal:
First, an independent process. When legislators are intimately involved in drawing their own district lines, there arises an irresistible temptation to conflate the public interest with personal or partisan gain. The authority responsible for redistricting in New York State – and just as important, the staff supporting that process – should be meaningfully independent from undue legislative influence: free from obligation, and possibly even free from ex parte contact. This does not simply mean bipartisanship, though bipartisanship may be desirable as well. Nor does it mean a process devoid of politics, or one that eliminates entirely politicians’ roles. The difference is that, in a body with independence, those with a particular incentive to lock out competent challengers are not given unfettered access to the keys.
Second, a diverse representative body. The need to reconcile the competing and complementary interests involved in the redistricting process means that to gain the confidence of the public, the redistricting body must be meaningfully diverse. Those responsible for drawing district lines should reflect ample geographic, racial, ethnic, and political diversity, so as to prevent charges of self-dealing similar to those that have found a foothold in the current system, but on a group level rather than an individual level.
Third, meaningful redistricting criteria. There are many available guiding principles. Some present affirmative requirements, such as the mandate to further the representation of discrete communities of interest. Others are negative injunctions, such as the obligation to avoid drawing lines in order to disadvantage a particular incumbent or challenger. One stands out as particularly important: given a commitment to the principle of majority rule, it is beneficial to pay some attention to the likely partisan balance of a redistricting map, so that a minority of the state’s population does not reliably and durably control the majority of the legislature. The need for clear governing criteria should not be confused with a demand that the criteria in question dictate a particular result. Rather, the criteria should retain enough flexibility to allow trusted decision makers — the diverse and independent redistricting body mentioned above — to apply overall state priorities to peculiar local circumstances, sensibly and in the broader public interest.
Fourth, meaningful transparency. At the moment, most citizens are excluded from the redistricting process, which concerns not merely public policy, but the aggregation of group interests that are the foundation of all policy discussions. Communities are splintered and electoral fortunes tailored, by and large, without meaningful opportunity for input. A commitment to basic transparency requires not only public hearings, but the opportunity to submit draft maps, and the opportunity to respond to drafts before they are enacted.