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Redistricting Process May Change — Again

The state’s Independent Redistricting Commission approved by voters may never see the light of day.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment to the way New York handles redistricting back in 2014 after a dysfunctional redrawing of Congressional district lines that ended up being drawn by a federal court. The state Legislature did pass a plan for state legislative districts that were challenged in court and upheld.

NY Uprising, a group founded by former New York City Mayor Edward Koch, pushed for redistricting reform. Gov. Andrew Cuomo, then a newly elected governor, proposed creating the Independent Redistricting Commission.

The commission is scheduled to begin its work in earnest once the U.S. Census Bureau releases the state’s population from last year’s census. The state League of Women Voters, which supported creation of the Independent Redistricting Commission in in 2011, expressed its displeasure with the state Senate on Tuesday.

“Today the state Senate passed a constitutional amendment to alter the state’s new Independent Redistricting Commission before it has the chance to even draft their first maps,” the state League of Women Voters said in a statement posted to its Twitter feed. “The newly proposed amendment effectively cuts off all minority party influence on the redistricting process, undermining the role of the commission. This proposal was rushed through during the summer 2020 session and is now once again being passed without opportunity for public input. Even if the amendment is approved by voters later this year, the timetable for amending the constitution does not allow the majority of the proposed changes to have any effect for this redistricting cycle other than creating legal uncertainty and chaos. The legislature should wait until the commission has had the chance to fulfill its constitutionally required duties before it attempts to usurp the untested process.”

WHAT IS THE INDEPENDENT REDISTRICTING COMMISSION?

The constitutional amendment created a 10-member commission to draw legislative district boundaries.

Each of the four legislative leaders (majority and minority leader in each legislative chamber) chooses two commissioners; those eight commissioners choose two others who have not been registered Democrats or Republicans for the last 5 years. No commissioner may have been, within three years prior to appointment, a state official, employee, or party chair, member of Congress, New York lobbyist, or the spouse of a statewide elected official or federal or state legislator.

Voting rules are based on political party control of the legislature. When the state Senate and Assembly are controlled by the same party — as they will be in 2021 and 2022 — commission approval of a map requires seven votes, including one commissioner appointed by each legislative leader. If no map reaches this threshold, the commission will forward the map with the most commission support to the state Legislature.

The legislature has two opportunities to accept or reject commission recommendations without modification — with voting rules based on party control as well. When the state Senate and Assembly are controlled by the same party, votes to approve a map must get two-thirds support in each chamber. After rejecting two commission maps, the legislature may substitute its own amended map. By statute, amendments may not modify a commission map by more than 2% of any district’s population.

The commission must submit its redistricting plans by January 1, 2022. If the Legislature rejects the first plan or the governor vetoes it, the commission must submit a second plan to the state Legislature no later than Feb. 28, 2022.

PROPOSED CHANGES

Last year, both houses of the state Legislature approved legislation changing the way the commission works.

The size of the state Senate would be fixed at 63 members in the state Constitution, preventing either party from simply increasing the size of the chamber to protect a majority. State residents who are in prison during a census will be counted at their place of residence, a change Democrats have wanted to make because Republicans, for years, counted downstate residents serving prison sentences upstate as upstate residents.

Another aspect of the 2014 legislation was protection of the minority party by requiring at least one appointee of the minority party to vote in favor of a redistricting plan. The new version of the legislation removes that stipulation.

OPPOSITION

Any changes to the New York state Constitution must be approved by both houses of the legislature in back-to-back sessions of the legislature in order to be placed on the ballot for state residents’ approval.

Both houses of the legislature approved the changes in 2020, and the state Senate approved the changes for the second time on Tuesday.

“Today Senate Democrats voted to subvert the will of New Yorkers who approved a constitutional amendment in 2014 establishing an independent redistricting commission. The goal of the amendment was to prevent politics from dominating the critically important process of re-drawing the state’s electoral maps. This is the process by which all of our state and federal representatives’ districts are created,” said Sen. George Borrello, R-Sunset Bay. “The bill which passed today was opposed by good government groups, including the League of Women Voters and Citizens Union, because it would undo the vital reforms that were agreed to by the governor and legislative leaders and approved by voters, before the commission could even begin its work. This proposal would return the crucial redistricting process to the “three men in a room” scenario by locking out the public, the independent commission as well as most elected officials who aren’t part of the Albany ruling class. Their power grab is shameful and runs counter to the reform-minded goals they purport to embrace.”

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