Statement from watchdogs on proposed redistricting reforms



IN ASSEMBLY, BILL NUMBER 10839. INTRODUCED BY THE COMMITTEE ON RULES (At the request of Members of Assembly Zebrowski, Rodriguez)

CONCURRENT RESOLUTION OF THE SENATE AND ASSEMBLY proposing an amendment to sections 2, 4, 5, 5-a and 5-b of article 3 of the constitution, in relation to the number of state senators and inclusion of incarcerated persons in the federal census for population determination for redistricting purposes and to the functioning of the independent redistricting commission in the determination of district lines for congressional and state legislative offices; and to repeal section 3 of article 3 of the constitution relating thereto New York’s legislative districts are infamous, serpentine senate and assembly boundaries in shapes described as “Abraham Lincoln Riding a Vacuum Cleaner,” “The Splattered Bug of the Bronx,” and “The Long Island Lobster Claw.” These bizarre figures are the result of political calculation, not artistic vision or more importantly compliance with bedrock principles of democracy.

The resolution amends the redistricting section of the state constitution by (1) capping the number of state Senators at the current level, sixty-three; (2) removing various provisions that have been declared unconstitutional by U.S. Supreme Court decisions; (3) enshrining in the constitution the current law requiring that mapmakers consider the home address of incarcerated individuals; (4) enshrining in the constitution the requirement that redistricting be accomplished on the total number of all persons residing within the state; (5) removing technical restrictions that apply only to the senate and were removed in the 2014 amendment for the assembly; (6) adjusting the deadlines for the redistricting commission’s actions; and (7) changing the voting requirements of the legislature and commission so that if the commission approves a plan with 7 of 10 members, a simple majority is required in the legislature, and if the commission fails to get 7 votes in approval, a 60% vote is required in the legislature.

After decades of calls for reform, change came about after the battles over the state’s last redistricting in 2012. After approving lines drawn by the majority leadership Republican Senate and Democrat Assembly (a federal court drew the congressional lines), the Governor and Legislature agreed to advance an “independent” redistricting commission and public process for 2022 and beyond through an amendment to the state constitution.

Our groups had concerns. One concern was based on the failure to clear out antiquated and illegal provisions from the constitution dating back to the 19th century; another was whether the commission could ever be “independent;” and third to require stringent fidelity to the “one person, one vote” principle that underpins protections to democratic representation.

Indeed, while the language of the constitution describes the current commission as “independent,” a judge blocked that description from the ballot question since he concluded, rightfully, that the commission as constructed was nothing more than advisory and that leaving that language in the ballot question would mislead the voting public. In our view, the commission membership is in reality a legislative body and we have seen nothing in the appointment process so far that changes our thinking.

Voters approved those changes in 2014. Six years later in 2020 we find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic that has disrupted nearly every facet of American life. Among the disruptions is that the decennial U.S. Census, which generates the population data essential to the task of redistricting, may be delayed. To further add to the difficulties of the looming redistricting process, the 2014 amendment was approved when primaries were set in September, and now they are in June. As a result of the pandemic and the changes to the primary date, the timetable for the state constitution’s redistricting process have been upended.

The proposal being advanced by the Legislature is intended to address our current dilemma as well as some of the vexing problems with New York’s 2014 redistricting “reforms.” If approved by voters, the proposal laudably would cap the number of senate districts at 63; provide constitutional protection for counting prison populations at people who are incarcerated’ last residences; do away with the partisan co- directors of the redistricting commission; eliminates the partisan commission voting rules; remove the 1894 “block-on-border” rule that favors towns over cities in senate line drawing; and removes “dead wood” provisions long ruled unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court and federal courts. The proposal also addresses timetable issues mapmakers face in 2020 and some of the shortcomings of the 2014 amendments. Lastly, it reduces the voting thresholds for approval by the legislature, eliminating convoluted rules that changed depending on the partisan makeup of the legislature.

However, while improving on the current redistricting requirements, the proposal falls short of the full reforms we believe would provide truly independent commission and, most importantly, establish stringent limits on permissible district population deviations (e.g. congressional districts are virtually identical in population). Moreover, it keeps in language that requires mapmakers to construct political boundaries using the core of existing districts – a major failing of the existing constitution.

Thus, while the resolution overall improves the redistricting process established in 2014, it could be significantly strengthened with reforms needed to ensure fair and independent redistricting.