by Alex Custin
New York faces a few interesting challenges in this round of redistricting. First, a law passed last year now requires inmates to be counted in the district they’re from rather than where they’re imprisoned. Second, New York is losing two congressional districts. Third, the governor has threatened to veto any redistricting plan that’s a political gerrymander. Finally, the requirement that military absentee ballots be sent out 45 days before the election means that New York has to hold its primaries earlier than usual, and the district lines have to be determined before then. The combination of these challenges means that New York has to redraw more district lines than it otherwise would and that it has to get its act together soon in order to have a plan in time.
The first challenge will affect both districts where prisons are located and districts from which the inmates came. Since population is the usual number used in order to draw district lines, districts with prisons will have to increase in size to remain equally populated and the districts that produce large numbers of inmates will have to shrink.
However, this challenge may not be addressed right away if some members of the legislature get their way. The Republicans have challenged the law requiring inmates to be counted where their last known address is located and it looks like the legislature may try to ignore the law while this challenge is pending. Because redistricting has to be done by next year, this is likely to result in the change not being applied until after the 2020 census.
The second challenge is likely to result in the loss of one district from each party, but which districts and how the lines of the other districts will be affected are still undecided. It’s theorized that the 9th district will be dissolved as a result of the Representative Anthony Weiner scandal, but there’s some debate as to whether this constitutes a Democratic loss (as Weiner was a Democrat) or a Republican loss (as his replacement, Representative Bob Turner, is a Republican). This in turn will affect which other districts are at risk and what regions the parties will be bargaining over when they redraw the lines to make up for the losses.
To compound these challenges, Governor Cuomo has promised to veto any redistricting plan that involves political gerrymandering. In support of this promise, he has proposed legislation that would create an independent commission that would be responsible for redistricting from now on. However, this proposal has been before the legislature since February 16th, and no progress has thus far been made. The combination of these two factors increases the pressure on the legislature to either create a relatively neutral plan or wait until the last minute so that the governor is essentially left with no choice but to approve the plan despite any gerrymandering.
The final big challenge is the requirement that military absentee ballots be sent out at least 45 days before the election, which in turn means that the primaries have to be held earlier than normal, which in turn means that the redistricting plan has to be passed earlier than normal. This may give legislators some added power if they delay sending the plan to the governor and he doesn’t have any politically neutral plans drawn out. Some plan has to be passed, and if the legislature’s is the only one available, the governor will be pressured into signing it, regardless of whether it contains political gerrymandering.
One possible solution is for the governor to form an independent commission and have them create one or more politically neutral plans in order to either force the legislature to create its own neutral plan or to provide the governor with an alternative. This approach would use governor-chosen commissioners, whereas under the proposed law, legislative leaders choose them. And as the proposal will be going around the legislature, both political considerations and the aforementioned concerns will be factors in the process. Given time considerations, this is likely the only plausible solution, but only time will tell whether the solution will be utilized and if so, whether it’ll actually work.
Because all of these challenges are occurring concurrently, New York will be an interesting state to watch as redistricting plans are announced and start to move through the legislative process. The answers to whether political gerrymandering will occur, whether the plan will be created independently, how inmate counting will affect district lines, and whether the governor’s threat will affect the legislature’s planning could all have ramifications far beyond New York state’s boundaries.
Alex Custin is a second-year student at William & Mary Law School.