New York State

In a win for gerrymandering, New York redistricting commission submits two sets of partisan maps

The state’s Independent Redistricting Commission failed to agree on one proposal to send to the Legislature.

The Independent Redistricting Commission's zoom meeting on Jan. 3.

The Independent Redistricting Commission's zoom meeting on Jan. 3. Rebecca C. Lewis

Surprising no one, the New York Independent Redistricting Commission ended its inaugural process without completing its goal of creating a bipartisan set of legislative maps in an attempt to end gerrymandering. The Democrats and Republicans on the commission each submitted their own maps – again – and with the commission evenly split between the two parties, they could not come to a consensus on a single set. So they sent both sets of lines to lawmakers, leaving it up to the state Legislature to decide which they prefer, or to redraw the maps completely.

All in all, the differences between the two partisan sets of congressional lines are fairly minimal, especially compared to the vast differences between the draft proposals released in September. In broad strokes, the proposed district lines in the two plans – “A” for Democrats and “B” for Republicans – largely share the similar shapes and locations, with compromises between Democrats and Republicans apparent. For example, both maps kept the Democratic proposal of putting Ithaca and Syracuse into the same district. Both maps also go with the Republican plan not to split up retiring Rep. Tom Reed’s district in the Southern Tier. Additionally, it appears both maps more closely follow the original GOP plans for the Hudson Valley and the Democratic plans for the North Country as well as parts of New York City. And both sides compromised on the Albany district by leaving it mostly untouched. 

Democratic Chair David Imamura praised the commission’s ability to come together to the extent that it did, one of the only moments where any sense of bipartisanship shined through during the meeting to vote on the maps. “I am proud that during these meetings, we were able to come to a consensus on large parts of the state,” Imamura said of 16 private meetings held between commissioners to discuss district lines. He and Republican Vice Chair Jack Martins both commended New Yorkers for giving their input and the joint work of commission staff, just about the only thing the pair would agree on.

However, several key differences still exist between the maps. For example, the Reed’s Southern Tier district is expanded to include Binghamton in the GOP proposal, which the Democratic map does not include. And plans for Long Island are vastly different, with Democrats keeping the current five seats there and making District 1 on the east end a little more Democratic. Republicans meanwhile gave up their original plan to remove a seat from Long Island, but still proposed very different lines than Democrats. In Brooklyn, there remains disagreement over where Sunset Park and Bensonhurst will land, likely part of a larger fight over the Jewish votes in the district. Slight differences between borders can have enormous impacts on which way a particular district may go, as well as the impact of certain voting blocs.

The meeting got off to a contentious start with Imamura laying the blame for the lack of a final compromise on Republicans. He reiterated an email sent to reporters by him and his fellow Democratic commissioners before Christmas that said that Republicans “walked away” from the negotiating table before a final compromise. “Throughout this process, what has disappointed me most about my Republican colleagues is their seeming indifference to public input,” Imamura said at the meeting. “And their unwillingness to put pen to paper, and modify their maps.” 

Imamura contended that Democrats did “completely redraw” their maps, but that Republicans did not. The congressional map Democrats proposed certainly continued significant differences compared to the draft plan they proposed in September, although the Republican map changed significantly as well. 

Martins took issue with Imamura’s characterization of how negotiations fell apart, himself reiterating a press release sent before Christmas that blamed Democrats for drawing their own maps and declining to discuss further. This letter prompted the response from Democrats soon after. “The fact that the commission members appointed by the majority in the Legislature chose to go out and draw their own map was up to them,” Martins said. “But our effort was to reach consensus without either side digging in your heels and advancing partisan maps.” 

Martins contended that Democrats refused to discuss any other maps but the new ones they prepared near the end of the commission process, which he said had only “slight variations” compared the maps from September. However, a comparison of at least the congressional maps show that Democrats made many changes to the maps they proposed at the final meeting.

The meeting ended with a vote on the two maps, and both getting approved with five votes and no discussion until afterwards. That means the commission will send both sets of legislative lines to the Legislature, leaving lawmakers in charge of figuring out what comes next. According to the state Constitution, if lawmakers reject the proposed maps from the commission, then those maps get sent back for revision. If lawmakers reject the Commission’s second draft, they can draw new lines. In the case that two maps are sent, the same rules apply – lawmakers can reject both maps and send them back, or approve one the first time around by a two-thirds majority.

Though it would be unfair to say that the commission completely failed at its task, as it is also sending thousands of pages of testimony from public hearings and other findings, the fact remains that after all that work, lawmakers – Democrats in particular – have the power to scrap the plans and start from scratch after commissioners couldn’t come present a unified front.