Cuomo pledged to end partisan gerrymandering. His plan just failed its biggest test.


The Senate Chamber is pictured during a legislative session in the New York State Capitol in Albany, NY Hans Pennink / AP Photo

ALBANY, NY – Former Governor Andrew Cuomo’s characteristic structural change in his first term was an overhaul of New York political mapping. A new “Independent Redistribution Commission” will “permanently reform the redistribution process in New York in order to put an end to the selfish, partisan gerrymandering once and for all,” he promised.

This bipartisan commission failed its biggest test on Monday with its 10 members Blocking 5-5 on a pair of competing proposals.

“It was a pathetic failure,” said Commissioner Ross Brady, who is allied with Republican members.

This leaves the redistribution process exactly as it was a decade ago. State legislators are now likely to reject both of the Commission’s plans and draw the cards yourself. And success cannot be taken for granted – the democratic majorities of the legislature need almost unanimity and have to fend off all the challenges of the GOP court.

But the Commission’s stalemate paves the way for the pro-democracy gerrymandering in the history of New York, the second most populous democratic stronghold in the country. That could give the party a big boost as it seeks to keep control of the House of Representatives. There’s now a smoother path for new lines that would help increase the size of the 19-member Democratic Congress delegation in New York to 22, or possibly 23, even as the number of seats shrinks from 27 to 26.

Such a result could have been predictable, in part because a state constitutional amendment created by the commission paved the way for the legislature to vote their lines twice and then revert to their old map-making habits.

“The independent commission was set up by Cuomo as a false positive move because its recommendations do not need to be followed,” said Democratic activist Bill Samuels, who led the opposition to the change. “At the time it was set up, most of us said it was meaningless.”

The commission came into being when former New York City Mayor Ed Koch pushed for the reform to be redistributed as the last act of his colorful life. Cuomo had promised to veto all Gerrymandered Lines when he ran for his first term in 2010. Koch’s activism on the matter made it impossible for Cuomo to step back from that promise without suffering significant setback. Legislators were unwilling to give up their traditional prerogative, however, and the amendment to make some changes starting in the 2020s was the best possible way to minimize the backlash from either the legislature or Koch.

Although it didn’t go as far as Cuomo had originally promised, the change left some protections against unilateral gerrymandering.

Much to the chagrin of other Democrats, Cuomo’s amendment effectively stated that new lines in both this chamber and the assembly that have dominated the Democrats since Watergate would require a two-thirds majority if the party were ever to gain control of the state Senate. At the time, the notion that the Democrats would win 42 of the 63 seats in the State Senate was considered highly unlikely. Then came Donald Trump and a subsequent Blue Wave election in 2018. The Democrats now have 43 seats in the Senate.

The change also allowed the Commission to actually come to an agreement. In this scenario, where Democratic and Republican commissioners come together around a series of lines, lawmakers may have been under heavy pressure to follow the cards.

Monday’s vote, however, questions whether a commission of five members allied with Democrats and five with Republicans, most of whom are appointed by legislative leaders, can ever function as advertised.

“It wasn’t an independent commission … The entire facility was problematic from the start,” says Susan Lerner from Common Cause New York. Lerner, the executive director of the civic activist group, won a lawsuit in 2014 asking a court to block the word “independent” from appearing on the ballot when the constitutional amendment went to voters as a referendum on the grounds that it was misleading to give the commission this label.

Assuming the commissioners can’t find a way to close a deal when they draw a second set of cards later this month, then there are just a few roadblocks preventing a Democrat-dominated card-making process.

For one thing, they have to stay united. The Democrats have the necessary two-thirds majorities in both chambers. But they don’t have much air to breathe either. If blocs – like the handful of socialists in every house – make demands that are unacceptable to their peers, the majorities may have to seek some Republican votes, which would certainly complicate matters.

But what if they find the voices? The only thing keeping Republicans from being fell into oblivion again could well be anti-gerrymandering language in the amendment, such as a ban on drawing lines “to discourage competition”.

Such a language is “far from appropriate,” said Lerner. Several attorneys have argued over the years that the only hope of winning a lawsuit on such a sentence is that Democrats are foolish enough to leave a paper trail explicitly saying they are manipulating a district. But it’s enough to guarantee that Republicans won’t capitulate anytime soon.

“It is unprecedented that we have the standards that are now in the Constitution, and no court has ever interpreted the standards,” said former US MP John Faso, a Republican. “I think it is a big gamble for them to try to outdo each other and do an extremely partisan gerrymandering.”

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