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NY misses the mark on independent legislative redistricting

A blue, green and white map of current congressional districts in New York State.
NYS Independent Redistricting Commission
Current congressional districts in New York State.

The task of drawing state and congressional legislative lines traditionally falls to state legislatures. But some states like California, Michigan, Arizona and Colorado leave it to independent commissions. New York tried to do the same, but on its first go-around missed the mark.

After a legal battle over New York’s legislative maps in 2012, legislators and then Gov. Andrew Cuomo created what they called the Independent Redistricting Commission.

"We did not have an Independent Redistricting Commission. We had exactly the opposite," said Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York.

The non-partisan good government group went so far as to sue to have the word “independent” taken out of the ballot proposal that would eventually create the commission.

Last year was its first time in action.

Lerner said lawmakers have too much control over it, making it not-so-independent.

"The commission is appointed directly by elected leaders and there are strange voting rules that basically give the legislative leaders and the governor veto over any of the maps which the commission would draw,” she said.

Now Lerner is saying, 'I told you so,' because that’s pretty much what happened.

After months of public hearings and millions of dollars spent, the commission didn’t agree on a map. So without any public input, the Democrat-controlled legislature drew their own.

And the map that was signed into law raises some eyebrows: 22 of the state’s 26 districts would favor Democrats.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior elections analyst at data and polling site FiveThirtyEight.

"It's definitely skewed towards Democrats significantly," Rakich said. "I think the insistence that you saw from a lot of state legislators, 'Oh, it was a fair map, Oh, we didn't draw it for partisan gain,' is just pretty clearly not true.”

Republicans have sued over the map. They say it violates another new provision also added in 2014 that bars districts drawn to favor one political party over the other: effectively–gerrymandering.

Even if they are successful, the judge in that case said he’s hesitant to throw out the map, at least this year, because elections have already started.

Shawn Donahue, an assistant professor in Political Science at the University at Buffalo, pointed out that, ultimately, the map will likely help send more Democrats to Congress in a year where they’re expected to struggle.

"Four Republicans will not be returning to Washington next year and there will be three new Democrats going to Washington," Donahue said.

He said Democrats in the legislature kind of embraced the not-so independent redistricting process to do so.

"I don't think they really cared about the moral high ground. I think they were more interested, because at least when we're talking about the House maps, it's not something isolated to New York. It's one state that has done something in favor of Republicans, so Democrats are looking to offset that and Republicans are looking to offsetting that," he said.

Independent redistricting commissions in other states have been successful. Lerner, from Common Cause, pointed out that California hasn’t had a legal challenge to its maps since it implemented its independent commission in 2008.

For now, a judge is allowing the dispute over New York’s maps to go forward. A decision must be made in the next few weeks.

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