Redistricting season is in full swing, as was made clear last week when the 10-member state Independent Redistricting Commission released dueling maps along party lines. Voters had approved the commission in 2014 with the idea that it could help lead the state to more nonpartisan and equitable state district maps, but this year’s decennial process that follows the U.S. Census is so far still full of political pressure and partisanship. New York is down a congressional seat, and whatever happens could have far-reaching ramifications in which party controls the U.S. House of Representatives.
While the redistricting process will see elected officials and commission appointees hashing out maps into early next year, New Yorkers will also partake in the process when they go to the ballot box this November. The New York Redistricting Changes Amendment, which was initially proposed by Democratic state Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris and Assembly Member Kenneth Zembrowski, includes several provisions that could change the way the Independent Redistricting Commission comes up with congressional and state district maps and how the state Legislature approves them.
Here’s a breakdown of what the amendment would do if approved.
Enshrining the number of state senators
The amendment caps the number of senators at 63 in the state constitution. Back in 1777 when the state’s first constitution was adopted, the state Senate had a mere 24 members. The number of senators swelled to as many as 65, as was the case when the Legislature passed a new reapportionment law in 1964.
During the 2012 reapportionment, legislators added a 63rd seat — to some controversy. The then-state Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who would go on to be convicted on federal corruption charges, justified the decision as in line with the state constitution. Democrats called it a power grab aimed at keeping Republican control of the Senate.
Gianaris described the limit on the number of state senators as the most important provision in the amendment. “In the past, additional seats would be added to the Senate just so a particular party can gain an advantage. We're trying to root out some of the gross gerrymandering tools that existed like that.”
Simplifying the approval process for redistricting maps – and giving more power to the majority
This is the part Republicans aren’t too happy about. Currently, the number of votes necessary to approve maps hinges on whether the Legislature has split party control or whether it's controlled by one party, as is the case now with Democrats having supermajorities in both the Assembly and the state Senate. Under the current constitution, if the Legislature is under split party control, a simple majority is required to approve commission maps. But if one party holds control of both chambers, a two-thirds majority is required in an effort to end up with maps that are approved by members of both parties. The November amendment would make it so a simple majority would suffice in any case, giving more power to whoever has a majority (psst Democrats).
Changes would also come to how the commission approves maps to send to the Legislature. Currently, the 10-member Independent Redistricting Commission consists of two members appointed by the state Senate majority leader, two by the state Senate minority leader, two by the Assembly speaker and two by the minority leader. The final two members are selected by the eight appointees, and neither can have been enrolled as a Republican or Democrat in the past five years.
The rules state that if the Legislature is under the same party control, maps must be approved with the support of seven or more members of the redistricting commission, including at least one member appointed by each of the four legislative leaders. Under the amendment, that approval would just have to come from seven members, regardless of who appointed them. Additionally the two nonpartisan members would be approved by a simple majority of the commission, rather than the current requirement that under a one-party controlled Legislature, at least one of each legislative leaders' two appointees needs to vote in favor.
In case the commission is unable to approve maps, a split Legislature currently requires a 60% approval of maps they establish that meet constitutional muster, whereas a singularly controlled Legislature would have to pass the maps with a two-thirds majority. Under the amendment, 60% would be sufficient no matter who is in control of the Legislature. If the commission fails to vote on maps, the amendment would call for all drafts and final maps to be submitted to the Legislature. Both houses can then amend the maps and then vote on them, with the 60% majority needed for them to be approved. Currently there’s no provision if this scenario were to occur, according to the Brennan Center.
Breaking up towns for redistricting purposes
When drawing maps, cities can be broken up, rather than trying to get them all into a single district. In the Assembly, that’s also the case for towns – but not in the state Senate. The amendment would make it so that towns could be broken up when drawing state Senate maps.
“There’s this issue in the state constitution, historically up until 2014, where essentially it made it easier to break up cities than it was to break up towns, which is an old provision that was essentially a way to help Republicans,” said Blair Horner, executive director of the New York Public Interest Research Group, a good government group supporting the amendment.
Doubling down on counting noncitizens and counting incarcerated people at their homes
The proposal would make it explicit in the constitution that noncitizens are to be counted for redistricting purposes. While the U.S. Census already counts people regardless of citizenship status, the measure will enshrine that in the state constitution.
Similarly, the ballot measure would clarify that incarcerated people would be counted at their prior residential address as opposed to where they’re currently imprisoned. That fortifies a 2010 New York prison-based gerrymandering law.
Moving up the redistricting timeline
Currently, the commission must submit its first plan to the Legislature by Jan 15, and its second by Feb. 28 if the first is rejected. But the ballot measure would make it all sooner, mandating the commission to submit its first plan on Jan. 1 and the second plan on Jan. 15.
This may all seem pretty arcane, but it pertains to a process that could shape the future of the state. “I’m one of the nerds that actually finds this fascinating,” Gianaris said. “I would say this is like a very interesting part of the democratic process that most people don't pay attention to but has a huge impact on the direction of the state, the country.”
Zach Williams contributed reporting