A ‘Master Class’ in Gerrymandering, This Time Led by N.Y. Democrats

Democrats across the nation have spent years railing against partisan gerrymandering, particularly in Republican states — most recently trying to pass federal voting rights legislation in Washington to all but outlaw the practice.

But given the same opportunity for the first time in decades, Democratic lawmakers in New York adopted on Wednesday an aggressive reconfiguration of the state’s congressional districts that positions the party to flip three seats in the House this year, a greater shift than projected in any other state.

The new lines would shape races in New York for a decade to come, making Democrats the favorites in redrawn districts currently held by Republicans on Long Island, Staten Island and in Central New York. They would also help tighten the party’s hold on swing seats ahead of what is expected to be a strong Republican election cycle, all while eliminating a fourth Republican seat upstate altogether.

Legal and political experts immediately criticized the new district contours as a blatant and hypocritical partisan gerrymander. And Republicans, who were powerless to stop it legislatively in Albany, threated to challenge the map in court under new anti-gerrymandering provisions in New York’s Constitution.

Overall, the new map was expected to favor Democratic candidates in 22 of New York’s 26 congressional districts. Democrats currently control 19 seats in the state, compared with eight held by Republicans. New York is slated to lose one seat overall this year because of national population changes in the 2020 census.

“It’s a master class in how to draw an effective gerrymander,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice, which has also sounded alarms about attempts by Republicans to gerrymander and pass other restrictive voting laws.

“Sometimes you do need fancy metrics to tell, but a map that gives Democrats 85 percent of the seats in a state that is not 85 percent Democratic — this is not a particularly hard case,” he said.

Democratic leaders in Albany rejected the charge, saying they were confident that the new districts were entirely legal and largely wrought by adjusting for population shifts that favor their candidates. But many of the party’s operatives and voters were less bashful in their support of gerrymandering, arguing that Democrats could not afford to take the high road when Republicans have shown no similar inclination.

Both parties have weaponized redistricting for years in the larger battle for control of the House of Representatives, but Republicans recently have been more effective in doing so, based on their control of large states like Texas and Florida, and the decision by liberal bastions like California to adopt nonpartisan redistricting commissions to handle the process.

On balance, their practices have also drawn greater legal scrutiny, often related to charges of racial gerrymandering. So far, state and federal courts have considered challenges to maps advanced by Republicans in several states, including Ohio, North Carolina and Alabama, and late last year the Justice Department sued Texas over new congressional maps that it said violated the Voting Rights Act’s protections for Black and Latino voters.

Understand Redistricting and Gerrymandering

  • Redistricting, Explained: Answers to your most pressing questions about the process that is reshaping American politics.
  • Understand Gerrymandering: Can you gerrymander your party to power? Try to draw your own districts in this imaginary state.
  • New York: Democrats released a starkly partisan redesign of the state’s congressional map that would be one of the most consequential in the nation.
  • Texas: Republicans want to make Texas even redder. Here are four ways their proposed maps further gerrymandered the state’s House districts.

At the same time, Republican-led states have attracted attention from the Justice Department after they advanced a series of new election laws making it more difficult to vote.

In New York, the redistricting cycle began, perhaps naïvely, in the hopes that a bipartisan outside commission — approved by voters in 2014 — would deliver a balanced, common-sense map.

Instead, the commission stuck to party lines and was unable to reach consensus last month, kicking control of the process back to the State Legislature, where Democrats have amassed rare supermajorities in recent years. Those majorities, plus control of the governorship, gave them the power for the first time in decades to draw maps as they saw fit.

Democratic leaders swiftly released their own maps in a matter of days, forgoing any public hearings and largely keeping even their own members in the dark about the new lines until they became public.

Wednesday’s vote fell mostly along party lines, as Democrats limited defections to narrowly pass the map in the Assembly, 103 to 45, and the Senate, 43 to 20.

The Legislature planned to proceed as soon as Thursday to pass state legislative maps drawn by Democrats divvying up State Senate and Assembly districts. Most notably, they were expected to help solidify Democrats’ hold of the State Senate in an election year when Republicans are trying to reclaim a chamber they controlled for all but three years between the mid-1940s and 2019.

Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, is widely expected to sign all the maps into law in the coming days.

But Republicans were already taking steps on Wednesday to prepare a lawsuit challenging at least the congressional lines as unconstitutional in state court. Several good-governance groups in the state said they agreed with the Republicans’ stance, though it was unclear if they would sign onto a suit or if anyone would attempt to sue on federal grounds related to the Voting Rights Act.

“The congressional maps are clearly unconstitutional under the new anti-gerrymandering provisions,” said John Faso, a former Republican congressman who is helping coordinate the effort between Albany Republicans and the National Republican Redistricting Trust. “There is a decent likelihood that there will be litigation as a result of it, but when and where I could not say.”

State Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader and leader of a task force that drew the lines, said that mapmakers had been “very conscious of potential legal pitfalls” and “more than complied” with the extensive list of standards outlined by the state.

“It’s a dangerous game to prognosticate on how elections are going to turn out before they are held,” he said. “Voters have the final say in all these districts, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone in a state as deep blue as New York, the results would reflect the reality on the ground.”

Senator Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader, defended the Democrats’ redrawn maps as being fair and constitutional.Credit…Hans Pennink/Associated Press

Any court case would likely hinge on how judges interpret language included in the same 2014 constitutional amendment that created the defunct redistricting commission. The language has not previously been tested in court and says that districts “shall not be drawn to discourage competition” or boost one party or incumbent candidate over another.

How U.S. Redistricting Works

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What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.

Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.

How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.

Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.

If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.

Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.

Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.

New York State courts have historically been reluctant to overturn plans passed by the Legislature. But Richard H. Pildes, a constitutional law professor at New York University, said that could change this year based on the new anti-gerrymandering language and the example set by other states’ courts that have grown more comfortable blocking gerrymandered plans.

“The provision is written in a strict prohibitory language,” Mr. Pildes said. “Proving that was what actually took place will inevitably trigger these debates about were these lines drawn to preserve particular communities of interest or a range of legitimate purposes.”

If a challenge is successful, a court could force Democrats to redraw the maps or appoint a special master to do so instead in a nonpartisan way. In the meantime, litigation could wreak havoc on the state’s political calendar, which calls for petitioning to begin in just a month.

The new district lines would create several contentious races, highlighted by a contest in New York City, where Democrats have redrawn Republican Nicole Malliotakis’s Staten Island-based district, one of the whitest and most conservative in the area, to include Brooklyn communities like Park Slope, Gowanus and Sunset Park, which have more liberal views.

A Trump acolyte who drew New York City liberals’ ire with her support for the former president’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election, Ms. Malliotakis has already called the lines a “desperate attempt to cancel me and silence our voice in Congress” and vowed to win.

But she faces a steep uphill fight, even in a year favorable to Republicans. Democrats are already circling, including Max Rose, a moderate whom Ms. Malliotakis defeated in 2020. Advisers to Bill de Blasio, the former New York City mayor who resides in Park Slope, are also looking at the possibility of a congressional run for him, according to someone familiar with the deliberations.

The district held by Representative Nicole Malliotakis, a Republican, was to expand by taking on more liberal parts of Brooklyn, complicating her re-election bid.Credit…Andrew Harnik/Associated Press

Democrats believe they could also flip the newly drawn First District on Long Island, now that the Suffolk County-based seat will stretch westward to pick up more liberal voters. Representative Lee Zeldin, a Republican who currently holds the seat, is running for governor, but his successor will likely have to navigate an electorate that favored President Biden.

In Central New York, the party is eyeing a third potential pickup opportunity in the Syracuse-based district currently held by Representative John Katko, a moderate Republican who has managed to overcome the district’s existing Democratic skew, but is retiring. Under the new lines, the district would now also include the liberal stronghold of Ithaca.

Those changes and the expansion of Representative Elise Stefanik’s North Country seat would effectively eliminate the district currently represented by another Republican, Claudia Tenney. Rather than retire, Ms. Tenney announced on Monday that she would run instead in the new 23rd District, a Republican-heavy Southern Tier seat where Representative Tom Reed is retiring.

Republicans were not the only group alarmed by the new maps. The process has infuriated good-governance groups that had pleaded with Democratic Party leaders to hold hearings.

And an influential coalition of groups that advocate for Black, Latino and Asian New Yorkers, known as the UNITY Map Coalition, accused mapmakers of “haphazardly” dividing Black and brown voters while ignoring the priorities of those communities.

“Many of the districts are contorted in incoherent ways that are not necessary, breaking apart communities and disenfranchising voters,” they wrote.

Nicholas Fandos reported from New York, and Luis Ferré-Sadurní and Grace Ashford from Albany, N.Y. Katie Glueck contributed reporting.

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