NYS “Independent” Redistricting Commission Maps are Anything But

Published by Joshua Simons on

Creating new political districts in the wake of a census usually involves several maps that are publicly released in an iterative process of improvement informed by feedback from the public. So, initial maps are rarely final maps. But, what the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission (NYSIRC) chose to do this time around was not to start the public conversation about where new lines should be drawn by proposing one map created by Democrats and Republicans together. Instead, they released one for each party. Gerrymandering is the manipulation of geopolitical district lines to favor a political party. These first-out-of-the-gate NYSIRC maps truly are a case study in what gerrymandering looks like. It is very transparent, but in this instance, not in a good way.

Supreme Court Justice Patrick McGrath ordered the state Board of Elections to remove the word “independent” from the ballot language presented to voters describing the 2014 constitutional amendment proposing creating New York State’s current Redistricting Commission. The Commission was not independent, the judge said, because the legislature retained the final say on district lines. If anyone is still looking for evidence that Judge McGrath was prescient, the Commission has now provided proof in its recently proposed maps. Whether the commission was unable or unwilling to come to a consensus on a proposed draft plan is not immaterial. If at the end of this process they cannot come to agreement on where to draw the new lines, the state legislature – currently a supermajority of Democrats in both the Assembly and Senate – will select the final maps. 

The Democrats have no incentive to collaborate or compromise with Republicans. To do so would only diminish Democrats’ ability to perpetually maintain their control of both houses of the New York State Legislature. Further, it is vitally important to Democrats to ensure that New York’s loss of one seat in the House of Representatives doesn’t contribute to Republicans’ plans to retake the House in 2022. “Failing” to reach a consensus allows the Democratic Party to have complete control of the outcome of redistricting. The flip side of this is that the Republicans know that there is no opportunity for collaboration and compromise, and so they too have no reason not to design the districts in a way that would most benefit them.

At this point, it is plain as day that partisanship trumped consensus and that the commission is willing, in the form of these first released set of maps, to demonstrate the party actors are very much viewing and operating with a partisan lens, despite the commission’s charge to be independent (it is in the body’s name, afterall). So, two sets of plans were released – one Democrat and one Republican – each for redistricting the State Assembly, State Senate, and our Congressional districts. At best, this reflects the bipartisan nature of the commission, but bipartisanship is not independence from the political process, and a bipartisan commission is only advantageous when compromises are struck and a consensus is built. Since the Democrat supermajority in the Assembly and the Senate will have the final say on how the lines are drawn, it is troubling then that partisans on the commission released separate maps in opposition to each other. It demonstrates the challenge of having this redistricting task completed by vested interests; that is, incumbents and a party that would like to stay in power.

Adding insult to injury, these maps are objectively and so obviously gerrymandered, drawn purely for political advantage, without regard to the communities and shared interests of people living in the state and our region. Throughout the following section we’ve inserted a series of maps showing both Republican and Democratic proposed sets of plans that highlight districts in the Mid-Hudson and some particularly egregious particulars about what’s in the offing for our region.

The Curious Case of the State Senate and Middletown

It is hard to make the case that any one of map by either party is the more problematic example of partisan gerrymandering, but it is noteworthy that both sets of plans for the State Senate include districts that break off the City of Middletown from the rest of Mid-Hudson and Orange County. The Republican plan groups Middletown with the City of Binghamton in Broome County, while the Democratic plan creates a district starting in Middletown that meanders north through the countryside to the northernmost border of Cortland County, over 179 miles from end to end, and it would take nearly three hours to drive from one end to the other. Both maps appear to shift incumbent State Senator Mike Martucci’s current 42nd District, who lives just south of Middletown and who defeated former State Senator Jen Metzger, to run against incumbent Democrat James Skoufis.

Setting up the Senate

It is apparent from the map that the Democratic Senate plan would ensure that Rosendale and the City of Kingston are in separate districts. This matters, because it would avoid pitting Metzger, or anyone who runs to represent Rosendale, where she lives, running against a candidate from Kingston, currently represented by incumbent State Senator Michelle Hinchey. Yes, it is questionable how viable it would be for a candidate from Rosendale to win a rural district that stretches north to include Fulton County and the Western portion of Saratoga County. Currently, Ulster County includes four State Senate Districts, and there has been a lot of advocacy by Democrats to change that, but while the Republican proposal does exactly that and proposes one Senator for the county, the Democratic design chops it up into three, presumably to prevent a Hinchey-Metzger, or other Democrat vs. Democrat primary contest.

The Assembly

Both Assembly maps could be used in a political science class as examples of blatant gerrymandering. The Democratic map splits Orange County into five different districts. It also splits the Village of Wappingers Falls in half; the City of Beacon in half; and the Town of Blooming Grove down the middle as well. Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and half of Beacon are in one district that joins them with the adjoining towns along the west side of the Hudson River. In Ulster County, the Town of Saugerties on the west side of the Hudson River is joined with a part of northern Dutchess County despite the fact that the only way to get from Saugerties to the rest of the district would be to swim (or take a boat) across the Hudson River, defying any definition of contiguity that includes being able to travel from any one part of a district to any other portion without having to leave the district.

The Republican plan isn’t much better. It “only” splits Orange County into four districts, but those districts are much more likely to swing Republican. It joins New Paltz with a district that stretches far to the northwest corner of Sullivan County. The City of Newburgh is in another district that goes all the way to the western edge of Sullivan County, and Putnam County is divided into three districts.

Congress

While all eyes are focusing on each party’s plan to deal with losing one seat in the House of Representatives, Mid-Hudson residents might also be interested in the upcoming election in what is now New York’s 19th Congressional District, the outcome of which could be pivotal for the success or failure of the Republicans’ attempt to flip the House. Incumbent Antonio Delgado (D) will face off against Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro (R) in the race. Delgado resides in Rhinebeck, while Molinaro calls neighboring town Red Hook home, so unless the Congressional districts are drawn separating those two towns in northern Dutchess County (they won’t be), then regardless of the plan, presuming they prevail in their primaries (they very most likely will), those two will face off against one another.

At first pass, it seems like the Republicans’ plan for the congressional districts would favor Delgado because of the many heavily blue places in it, but upon closer inspection, it seems to favor Democrats, but not Delgado, because it also puts him in the same district as the very popular, long-serving Congressman Paul Tonko (20th District), and creates another enormous district that covers a huge swath of land from the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario all the way south to the middle of Ulster County. 

In the Republican plan for CD19 Ulster County is split into three different districts. The Democrats’ proposal includes parts of Columbia, Dutchess, Orange, and Ulster Counties, and splits many towns: Copake, Livingston, Clermont, Saugerties, Hurley, New Paltz, Gardiner, Shawangunk, Mamakating, Blooming Grove, Monroe, and New Windsor.

And back to Middletown… currently in CD18, incumbent Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney’s CD18 includes it, but in both parties’ version district 18 looks very different, both without Middletown in it. The Republican map would put Maloney’s home of Cold Spring in a North-West district mostly east of the river, but about a third of the area is across the Hudson in southern Ulster; the Democrat’s version has a cohesive southern Hudson Valley district with all of Westchester, Rockland, and Putnam, with some of eastern Orange County. 

Not a Surprise, but also, Perhaps Worse

Fair and representative political maps should set geopolitical boundaries that adhere to federal Voting Rights parameters while creating districts that are comprised of cohesive communities. The maps the NYSIRC released do not do that. There is considerable splitting of communities, and playing of lines to appear to conform to federal rules but in the end, foundational is the intent to maintain or gain political power. 

There is unfortunate precedent for the commission failing to reach a consensus. In the last redistricting cycle the time honored tradition persisted of the Democrats controlling the Assembly districting and the Republicans controlling Senate districting, and then signing off on each other’s plans. But the practice came to an impasse with the Congressional maps. Rather than reach a compromise the Legislative Task Force on Redistricting and Reapportionment (LATFOR) asked a federal judge to draw the Congressional plan that we have today. 

In sum, what we see now is the result of creating an independent commission that isn’t. The same partisan divides that have always plagued the process of redistricting continue, and with a Democratic supermajority in the Assembly and Senate, both parties have no reason to compromise. The structure of the system coupled with the political realities in New York State provide no incentive for compromise, consensus building, or designing maps based on any priority other than political advantage.

When people spoke up against the NYS constitutional amendment that created the independent commission, criticizing its lack of independence from the legislature, or the political process, those criticisms were met with claims that though this is not a perfect system it is better than what we had, and would be a step in the right direction. The unabashed partisanship demonstrated quite visibly in these maps shows that given the political cover the so-called independent commission provides, politicians are free to draw maps where they choose their voters exactly as they would have under the old system, only with less scrutiny. If anything, it’s possible to contend that the “independent” redistricting commission system we now have is worse than what we had before.


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