It’s hard to remember a time when someone outside the boundaries of New York state cared about how the state’s congressional districts were redrawn. New York bled in population and seats in the House of Representatives every decade and has long been something of an afterthought that has been ignored in heated debates about how states like Texas, Florida, and Ohio make their maps.
Next year will be very different. No state can be more important to the future of the Democratic majority than safe blue New York, which nevertheless boasts a sizeable Republican delegation. If local Democrats get their way in the coming months, the number of Republicans in the state will be could be radically reduced, which empowers the Democrats in the House of Representatives at a time when Republicans are likely to win in the midterm elections.
How many Democratic seats can New York add? In some of the most ambitious scenarios, the Democrats could control up to 23 of the 26 seats in the New York House of Representatives. That would downsize the Republican delegation from eight to three and clean up conservatives who traditionally represented parts of New York City and the surrounding suburbs. In the House of Representatives, Democrats have a cushion of only eight seats and, given the history of the parties’ loss of power in the House and Senate, are very unlikely to win. Deleting five Republicans in New York could make all the difference.
Local peculiarities have put New York in this new national spotlight. Every 10 years state lawmakers huddled together to move new seats in parliament and congress after the census. Unlike a handful of other states, New York never had an independent redistribution process. The Speaker of the State Assembly and Majority Leader in the Senate would design new cards with input from ordinary lawmakers and members of Congress. The rule was simple: protect incumbents at all costs.
In a state that has not elected a Republican presidential candidate since Ronald Reagan in 1984, that should have resulted in greater democratic gains in the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. But New York wasn’t like other Democratic-led states – Republicans not only had power, they were allowed by democratic politicians to keep it. From the 1960s through 2019, with a brief hiatus, Republicans controlled the state’s Senate. This meant that for each subsequent decade, a Republican majority Senate leader drew congressional cards along with Democrats who were more interested in protecting their own than increasing their ranks.
The redistribution of New York state a decade ago was a disaster. Andrew Cuomo had campaigned for the promise to create an independent redistribution process without the interference of politicians. Such an independent commission would, by default, benefit the Democrats who previously had to grapple with Senate seats and House cards. In 2012, Cuomo broke his promise and instead supported a constitutional amendment that would create a politicized, quasi-independent body that would redraw the cards – in 2022. Meanwhile, Democrats in Parliament and Republicans in Senate were arguing about it how the county lines would look like are taking shape, with the Democrats eventually creating their own map for the lower chamber and the Republicans again winning ill-organized Senate counties in their favor.