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How NY's proposed district lines could be challenged in court

A Congressional Districts map of Upstate New York.
NYS Independent Redistricting Commission
The proposed new congressional district lines, designed by Democrats in the New York State Legislature.

Gov. Kathy Hochul said on Tuesday that she’ll review the Legislature’s newly drawn district maps for Congress, State Senate, and Assembly when they’re sent to her for a signature, but wouldn’t weigh in on the new lines before then.

Republicans have been quick to attack the new districts — which still require approval from the Legislature — as drawn to benefit Democrats in this year’s elections.

The new districts aren’t out of the blue; a task force within the Legislature, which is controlled by Democrats, has been working on the revised lines for months. They’re based on the results of last year’s census.

Democrats plan to approve the new maps this week in Albany, after which they’ll head to Hochul for a signature. Hochul said she didn’t want to see that process delayed.

“I will wait to see what is presented to me on my desk at such time,” Hochul said. “I just really want this process to keep moving forward. We need the certainty, the clarity — time is slipping away quickly.”

Hochul likely won’t get the expediency she’s looking for. While she could approve the maps as early as Thursday, when the Legislature plans to give them final passage, they’re likely to end up in court.

That’s what happened a decade ago, when the last set of maps were up for consideration. A court-appointed special master was ultimately tasked with drawing the state’s congressional districts, which remain in place today.

But the near-inevitable legal challenges to this year’s set of maps could look different, according to Richard Briffault, a constitutional law expert from Columbia Law School.

After the last round, the state Legislature approved a new amendment to the state constitution that both prescribed how new districts would be drawn moving forward, and who would do the drawing — the Independent Redistricting Commission.

The Independent Redistricting Commission couldn’t come to an agreement on a new set of maps in January, which kicked the process back to the Legislature under state law — back to square one.

But the other parts of that amendment still apply, including a provision that requires districts to be drawn without favor for particular candidates or parties, and without discouraging political competition.

“I think that will be the opening for people who challenge this, is to make the argument that the maps were designed to either favor particular candidates or particular parties, and the state constitution now says that’s a legitimate argument to raise,” Briffault said on public media's WAMC in Albany.

Because the amendment was enacted after the last round of redistricting, there’s been no legal precedent for such a challenge. Judges will often refer to previous cases in election-related law, but that won’t be an option this time around.

“Proving it is a separate question, but raising it is going to be something that will get you into court,” Briffault said.

Democrats have defended the newly drawn districts, saying they were crafted to comply with federal and state law, and not designed to target one candidate or party in particular.

Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who also heads the campaign arm of the Senate Democratic Conference, said during an interview on public media's WNYC in New York City Tuesday that the districts were drawn to move away from gerrymandering, not closer.

"As we unravel the gerrymanders of the past, it doesn't make it a gerrymander of today. These are districts drawn fairly,” Gianaris said.

Good government groups have pushed back on the maps, calling them a partisan power-grab for this year’s elections. The League of Women Voters, a nonpartisan voting rights group, said the maps weren’t fairly drawn.

“Partisan gerrymandering is banned under the state constitutional amendment passed in 2014, yet the maps released on the 31st and the 1st reflect a Legislature that appears to care more about favoring partisan interests than it does for fair maps,” the group said.

The districts are based on math — each seat in Congress and the state Legislature has to represent, roughly, the same number of people.

New York is losing a seat in Congress because the state’s population hasn’t grown at the same rate as other states. The Legislature’s plan would remove that seat from upstate New York, where population has lagged behind that of New York City.

Some districts would be drawn in a way that would, intentionally or not, disadvantage incumbents.

The 11th Congressional District, which now includes Staten Island and parts of Brooklyn, would be redrawn to include different parts of Brooklyn aligned more closely with Democrats, for example. The district is currently held by Rep. Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican.

And in upstate New York, Rep. Claudia Tenney would be drawn out of her current district, which includes Binghamton and parts of Central New York. Tenney’s said she’ll run anyway; state law doesn’t preclude her from running in a district where she doesn’t live.

The number of seats would remain the same in the state Legislature, but two seats in the State Senate would be shifted from upstate New York to New York City, setting up a few primary battles between incumbents north of the five boroughs.

The state’s primary election will be held at the end of June, starting the clock on legal challenges to the maps ahead of petitioning and, eventually, the ballot box.

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