New York’s new bipartisan redistricting commission got off to an inauspicious start on Wednesday, as its Democratic and Republican members failed to reach an agreement on an initial set of congressional and legislative map proposals.
Instead, the New York State Independent Redistricting Commission, the body empowered by voters to remove politics from the mapmaking process, said it would proceed for now with two competing proposals, one drawn up by its Democratic members and another by Republicans.
With New York slated to lose a seat in its congressional delegation after last year’s census, both maps proposed eliminating a district upstate, where the population has declined. But the Republican plan appears to offer its party’s candidates a better shot at retaining seats in northern and western New York, as well as on Staten Island, while Democrats’ proposals appeared more likely to extend their party’s dominance in Congress by shifting more seats downstate.
Nothing in the State Constitution requires the commission, which is drawing lines for the first time since it was created in 2014, to agree to a single set of maps for congressional, Assembly and State Senate districts at this point in the process. But the partisan squabble over what amounts to a preliminary discussion does not spur optimism that the commission can unite around a single set of bipartisan maps to present to Albany for ratification.
Its failure could pave the way for Democratic supermajorities in Albany to step in to determine the final maps. Party leaders there and in Washington are already quietly circling in case the commission cannot reach a final agreement or produce a final result party leaders like. They hope to use the process to knock out as many as five Republican congressional seats, boosting the party nationwide as it tries to maintain a narrow House majority, and to shore up permanent majorities in the Legislature.
Under the New York Constitution, the redistricting commission leads the way in drawing maps. But if it fails to come to a consensus among itself or delivers lawmakers a map they simply don’t like, the Legislature can overpower the body and establish almost any map they choose, so long as the districts meet constitutional requirements and are roughly equal in size.
Republicans in New York and Albany are certain to balk at the process and could challenge the outcome in the courts, which drew the current congressional map in 2012 amid a partisan dispute in Albany.
Republican commissioners wasted little time pointing fingers at their Democratic counterparts, whom they accused of cutting off talks in recent days that had been intended to try to reconcile the competing maps. Privately, the Republicans fear that Democratic commissioners have no intention of finding an agreement and would prefer to let the body fail so they can kick the process directly to the Legislature to draw more advantageous maps for their party.
Republicans on the commission bemoaned the lack of consensus, as well as the weaknesses they saw in the Democratic plans. An independent commissioner, Ross Brady, said that he “had gone from being very hopeful to being supremely disappointed,” specifically noting what he called “large deviations” in population in the Democrats’ map.
Democrats were prepared to argue, though, that the competing maps could be a good thing, allowing voters to compare alternative lines to advise the commission which they liked best. Commissioners stressed that the presentation of two sets of maps Wednesday did not close the door on the possibility that they would eventually find consensus and release a single set.
New York voters created the independent commission by constitutional amendment in 2014, but its contours were the product of a compromise between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Republicans, who controlled the State Senate at the time. The idea was to take line drawing out of the hands of politicians in the Legislature eager to protect their party and their incumbents and give it, starting this year, to a bipartisan body that could fairly divide up the state.
But the commission struggled to assert its independence from the start, and critics say its structure — with most appointees designated by the party leaders in the Legislature — makes compromise exceedingly difficult.
The panel did not receive funding from Albany until April, forcing commissioners to volunteer their time for the first eight months. The Legislature, in contrast, has continued to fund its own map-drawing task force year after year.
Nor did the panel receive detailed census data until last month because of national delays; the panel is still waiting on data on the state’s prison population that the commission needs to fine-tune its maps.