New York Democrats will (almost certainly) draw their own district lines after independent commission fails

Communication has broken down in the state’s first bipartisan redistricting task force.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins.

New York State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. NYS Senate Media Services

This story has been updated at 2:50 p.m. to reflect comments from the Republican members of the Independent Redistricting Commission.

It looks like gerrymandering will make a triumphant return to New York. The state’s new commission tasked with drawing legislative lines has called it quits without any new maps to send to lawmakers. That means it’s now up to the state Legislature to draw lines for their own districts, as well as for Congress, just like before the so-called reforms were introduced.

The five Democratic members of the Independent Redistricting Commission released a statement on Monday saying that they had been unable to meet with their Republican colleagues to figure out a compromise between their two partisan sets of maps. The commission had two weeks to draw new lines after lawmakers rejected both sets of maps it sent on Jan. 10, and that time officially runs out tomorrow. “We have repeatedly attempted to schedule a meeting by that date, and our Republican colleagues have refused,” the statement reads. “This is the latest in a repeated pattern of Republicans obstructing the Commission doing its job.” 

Illustrating just how much cooperation has disintegrated, the five Republican commissioners responded by placing the blame on their Democratic counterparts. “The Democrat appointed commissioners have no incentive to work cooperatively toward a consensus plan and, in fact, they purposely scuttled the process so that the determination of district lines would be tossed back to a legislature controlled by democrat (sic) super-majorities,” a statement from them read. 

Commission Chair David Imamura confirmed to City & State that the commission doesn’t have a new set of maps to send lawmakers given the inability to meet, meaning that the task will fall to the Legislature thanks to a law signed last year by Gov. Kathy Hochul. Originally, the constitution did not offer a clear course of action if the commission failed to send a new set of maps for the Legislature to approve or reject, leaving the door open for a time-consuming lawsuit. 

The ultimate failure of the commission to present the Legislature with a single set of redistricting maps was a foregone conclusion for many political observers. “The rules created so many twists and turns and vote requirements that it should be no surprise to anyone that the redistricting responsibilities fall back to the Legislature,” said Jeffrey Wice, senior fellow at the New York Law School Census & Redistricting Institute, referencing the constitutional amendment that created the commission nearly eight years ago. “The 2014 amendment did not create a truly independent process.”

Approved by voters in 2014 and first launched after the 2020 census, the 10-member Independent Redistricting Commission was meant to fairly take on the task of drawing district lines for representation. Despite the hours of public hearings and thousands of pages of testimony the bipartisan commission gathered that it has sent to the Legislature, the state is ultimately right back where it was the last time it drew new legislative lines. 

“After a lot of money, and a lot of detour, and a lot of attention to a commission that was ultimately ineffective, the Legislature’s going to draw its own lines,” said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York. She added that anyone who provided testimony did not even get to make their case to the people who would draw the maps in the end. “You don’t need a commission to hold hearings,” she said. 

The Legislature prepares to take the reins 

The leaders of both chambers have indicated that they would approach the redistricting task fairly and without partisan bias. “We can draw maps that make sense, that are contiguous, that make sense and are rational and reasonable if we have to do that,” state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in an interview with the Times Union last week. A spokesperson for Stewart-Cousins did not immediately have a new statement in light of the Democratic commissioners’ press release.

A spokesperson for Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie did not return a request for comment by publication time, but he recently appointed Assembly Member Kenneth Zebrowski to co-chair of the Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment. “I know that Assemblymember Zebrowski is the right person for the job, and will treat this position with the gravity and diligence that it requires,” Heastie said in a statement last week. 

Lawmakers will need to work under a tight time crunch to draw and approve new maps. Petitioning for the June state primaries begins on March 1, meaning they will have to approve new district lines before then, and ideally with adequate time for boards of elections to prepare.

Despite concerns about gerrymandering, Wice suggested that rules in the state constitution would make it more difficult than in the past to create overly biased districts, and that the state’s demographics wouldn’t warrant it. “New York is a blue state,” Wice said. “A truly gerrymandered plan would go out of its way to benefit Republicans by creating the kind of contorted districts seen in recent state Senate plans.” However, that doesn’t preclude the possibility moderate Democrats, for example, may push for lines unfavorable to progressive challengers. 

Technically, commissioners have until the end of the day tomorrow to send a new set of maps to lawmakers, which means the commission still has time to meet and compromise. But the prospect of agreeing on a single set of maps within the next day seems exceedingly unlikely. 

Gov. Kathy Hochul is another unknown factor in the equation. She will need to sign maps that the Legislature approves, and while Democrats have the votes to overturn a veto, such a scenario is rare. Soon after taking office, Hochul had indicated that she would use her influence to help Democrats gain seats in the House of Representatives through redistricting. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately return a request for comment on the latest redistricting development.