It’s redistricting season all across the country, and in New York, David Imamura finds himself in an unprecedented situation. He chairs the Independent Redistricting Commission, tasked with drawing new district lines with the aid of the public, for its first test. Created through a state constitutional amendment in 2014, the commission represents an attempt to get away from the partisanship that has traditionally infected the redistricting process when the state Legislature alone came up with new maps. Already facing enormous pressure, the pandemic presented a new challenge for Imamura and the commission when COVID-19 led to a delay in census data.
The commission released its draft maps in September to mixed reviews – rather than a single set of lines, it proposed two sets with support split along ideological lines. Already, political observers and headline writers were ready to label the inaugural outing a failure. But Imamura considered that a false narrative. Ahead of the next round of hearings set to begin next week in Buffalo, he spoke with City & State about his thoughts on the potential success of the commission, the fate of a contentious ballot proposal and working across the aisle with Republicans. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When the commission released two sets of draft maps, things got pretty heated. Have you spoken with your Republican vice-chair and other commissioners since then?
We’ve talked a lot about the logistics of the hearings. I’m very happy that the public will have the opportunity to participate through Zoom. Obviously, the whole point of putting the lines out to get public input was so that we could get public input. So we haven’t talked about the lines substantively since then, but I imagine that we will going forward.
Many headlines said that the commission had already failed when it released two sets of maps along partisan lines. How do you combat that narrative?
I completely disagree with that narrative. I think that A: Just because we were unable to reach a single set of lines doesn’t mean we won’t be able to reach a single set of lines in the future. If you look at other commissions – the New Mexico commission, they put 11 sets of lines out. I think the Colorado commission put five sets of lines out, right? I mean, this is part and parcel of being independent, is putting out multiple sets of lines so the public can weigh in.
I’m not overly familiar with other states, but you had two sets of maps with one backed by Democrats and the other backed by Republicans. It seems very partisan.
I don’t think New York is any more partisan than any other state. Redistricting is inherently a contentious issue. And I think in lieu of frantically negotiating a single set of maps without any public input whatsoever on the proposals, other states and we are putting out multiple sets of lines.
Do you expect there to still be accusations of partisanship once the final lines are released and voted upon?
I think it’s inherently a political process, so I think people will say lots of different things. But I know that I can say that we are committed to trying to work together in a bipartisan fashion to come together to an agreement on this.
Do you foresee a situation where you deliver two sets of maps to the Legislature?
I think that’s certainly possible, but I also think that we’re going to work hard to come to an agreement on it.
How much confidence do you have that the Legislature will accept the maps you propose, or one of the sets of maps you propose?
I view this process in silos. I think we have our job, and our job is to go out to the public and get public input and draw the maps that best represent the people of New York. And then the Legislature has its job, and I think that’s a separate process, and that’s something that we’re not really considering as we go out and get public input. This is something unprecedented in New York state history, that everyday people are being asked to weigh in on this process. And so people all across the state, average New Yorkers, are able to weigh in. When they speak to us, they’re not just speaking to us, they’re speaking to the Legislature as well.
Would you view it as something of a failure if after all this work with this unprecedented commission that the Legislature doesn’t accept the lines you present?
Not at all. I don’t think it would be a failure at all if the Legislature decides to go in another direction. I think that we have done, I would say, of having literally thousands of New Yorkers weigh in on these lines. Whether the Legislature changes our lines or accepts them, that record, that information is going to go to the Legislature when they draw the maps – if they draw the maps.
What happens if the ballot proposal New Yorkers are voting on this year that relates to redistricting doesn’t pass? How does that affect your thinking?
One of the things that most immediately impacts us that’s on the ballot is the date we need to get the maps to the Legislature. The deadline currently in the state constitution is Jan. 15, and then the next deadline is in February. But that’s because, when the referendum was passed in 2014 creating the system, the primaries were in September. And then they got moved back to June. So as a result, we need to get these maps to the Legislature sooner than January. I’ve personally been aiming for Jan. 1 – which is what the new date is in the ballot referendum. I think that we should aim for that date regardless of whether the referendum passes or not.
There was obvious disagreement between commissioners about the draft lines, some Republicans saying your lines were illegal. The ballot proposal also makes some more in the weed changes to the actual redistricting rules. If that doesn’t pass, what does that mean for the lines you’ve currently proposed?
I would be the first to say that no matter what happens, the lines that we proposed will change. Even if you had just the five Democratic commissioners who voted for the Democratic proposal come together today, I think would modify the lines now, just based off of input, what has been said publicly about the maps. No matter what happens, these lines are going to change. And I said this on Sept. 15 (at the meeting when the draft maps were released).
Are you concerned at all that this referendum you support in the middle of redistricting would cause unnecessary confusion around an already confusing process? Changing the majority needed to pass the maps, changing aspects of how the lines can be drawn?
I agree that the process is pretty confusing already. I do not think that the referendum makes it any more confusing. I think that if anything that clarifies the law. It clarifies our deadlines, it clarifies what our rules are. Some of the things that are being changed are literally unconstitutional under the federal Constitution. So it’s kind of hard for us to figure these things out. Having the referendum pass and clarify the law helps us rather than hurts us.
There was certainly some public tension between commissioners down party lines at the meeting to release the maps. Has that been an issue with regards to your ability to work together?
Oh, not at all. I think the commission has been incredibly cordial, I think we’ve been working well together. Yeah, we disagreed on the lines, that was to be expected, right? But I would not say by any means there’s been any kind of animosity that prevents the commission from functioning. I talked to (my vice chair) Jack Martins the day my son was born. I would say that Sept. 15 definitely was more contentious, but it’s a contentious process. I wouldn’t say that there’s any dysfunction arising from it. We also had the first round of hearings, which weren’t constitutionally required. We as a group, on a bipartisan basis, felt that we should get public input first before we drew the lines. If there was animosity, there definitely wasn’t any when we put on over a dozen hearings offered virtually all around the state.
Looking ahead to the next round of hearings, what do you expect to hear from people?
I hope that the public will bring up issues that I never thought of because that’s the way this process was designed to be. And that’s the way that this process should work. When we were drawing (the maps), it was of great comfort to me to know that we were going to get public input. It was a great comfort to me to know that if we didn’t make the right call, that the public would call us out on it, and that the public would tell us to fix it. That’s what I’m hoping for in this next round of hearings.
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