For the last year I have served as chair of New York State’s first ever Independent Redistricting Commission. Created by the voters via a 2014 state constitutional amendment, the commission was ostensibly designed to remove partisanship from redistricting and end gerrymandering in the Empire State once and for all. However, it is safe to say that the new process failed spectacularly. The commission was unable to agree on district lines. The state Legislature then took over the process, but the lines they drew were overturned by the courts. Now a judicial special master will draw New York’s district lines.
While the courts and some parties have laid blame on the commission for failing to perform its duty, it is the commission structure established by the state’s constitution that is actually to blame. The commission was created in 2014 by the then Republican-controlled state Senate and now former Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Realizing that the Democrats might soon take full control of the state government, the governor and the Republicans intentionally created a system that would not work. Under this process the Commission was required to be evenly split, five Democrats and five Republicans. The state constitution also required seven votes to do anything, which functionally meant that every decision had to be unanimous. The commission essentially could not buy pens or paper clips without all ten commissioners agreeing.
With five Democrats and five Republicans who had very different views on how districts should be drawn and, in particular, how various communities of interest should be respected in accordance with the constitutional criteria, it became clear that the commission would not reach agreement. Without a tie breaker (surprise!), the Commission eventually deadlocked.
Add to this Republican intransigence. My counterpart, former state Sen. Jack Martins, the Republican vice chair of the commission, clearly was interested in running for office again. In our marathon negotiating sessions, again and again we would come back to Nassau County (his home), and again and again we would be unable to agree on the districts where he conceivably would run.
Two months after the commission reached a stalemate, I was shocked but not surprised to see Jack announce his candidacy for New York State Senate in a district that he himself had been trying to draw mere weeks before.
The courts have faulted the commission for failing to send a second set of maps to the Legislature by the constitutionally imposed deadline. I want to be clear about why we were unable to do so. When the time came to send our second set of maps to the Legislature, our Republican colleagues refused to even attend a meeting to hold a vote on the maps we were proposing. Since the state Constitution requires a seven-person quorum and since the five Republican Commissioners refused to hold a meeting, it was impossible to vote out maps to send to the Legislature. It is thus particularly frustrating that the Court of Appeals invalidated the new district lines in part on the fact that we did not have a final vote. Seeing how this all played out, I realize now that this was likely the Republican strategy all along – refuse to hold a vote to set up their lawsuit when the Legislature took over the process.
While I can blame Republican intransigence, ultimately no matter who is appointed to the commission, New York’s current redistricting process is doomed to fail. A politically appointed, evenly divided Redistricting Commission will never be able to come up with a single set of maps. The Court of Appeals has now created a process where courts will always draw the district lines.
If we are going to have a truly independent, voter-driven redistricting process, we need to reform New York State’s Independent Redistricting Commission. It needs a tie breaker vote, and it needs members who are appointed through a competitive non-political process.
I am proud of the work the commission did. We traveled across the state, holding 24 public hearings where we listened to over 700 speakers. The commission ultimately received over 3,000 submissions from the public, where every day New Yorkers had the chance to make their voices heard. Their work will ultimately be submitted to the Special Master and the Court for their review in drawing new maps.
The opportunity for a true, functioning redistricting commission is there. Other states have commissions that function and are not procedurally designed to fail. New York deserves better than the broken redistricting process it currently has. There is a way to truly incorporate public input into drawing districting lines, we just need to find it.
David Imamura is chair of the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission.