Redistricting Amendment Hangs by a Thread

March 16, 2012 Updated: March 16, 2012

NEW YORK—On Thursday morning, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed into law a constitutional amendment that is meant to take the politics out of the redistricting process for state Senate and Assembly seats by turning it over to an independent commission.

But the kicker is that it will only take effect if it passes another round of votes next year. 

Cuomo let the current district lines, which are drawn to favor incumbents of either party, get by without a veto, and instead put the amendment into effect for the next round of redistricting in 2022. 

Redistricting takes place once every 10 years after the national census data is released. 

“Because the legislators violated their promises that they were going to support independent redistricting in the first place, that has made people cynical that they’ll pass a second round of [voting on] this constitutional amendment,” said Morgan Pehme of New York Civic, a nonpartisan, good-government organization. 

Legislators had vowed to former Mayor Ed Koch and other civic leaders that they would draw nonpartisan lines this time around. 

The lines they drew often follow partisan boundaries, however, and protect incumbents, says Susan Lerner of good-government, advocacy group Common Cause New York.

To protect against a no-vote on the amendment next year, the governor put into place a statute that he said will force the amendment through even if legislators don’t pass it in 2013. The statute creates the same independent commission the amendment would, so even without the amendment the changes are made. 

Morgan says he distrusts the statute that was introduced and passed quickly without public review early Thursday morning. He worries it won’t hold as much clout as an amendment and legislators could challenge it in court if they were so inclined.

Even if the amendment passes without incident next year, some good government groups feel it does not truly put an independent process into place. 

Professor Gives Redistricting Amendment Overall C-

Professor Gerald Benjamin of New Paltz SUNY wrote up a report card for the amendment, giving it an overall C- grade. 

“The commission process defaults to the Legislature,” writes Benjamin. If the commission deadlocks, the decision goes back to the Legislature. Morgan explains that the Legislature has the opportunity to approve or reject the commission’s plan. If it rejects the plan twice, the process goes back to the Legislature.

Although the amendment states that the lines should not “favor or disfavor incumbents,” it also states that the core of districts should remain the same, which could work in favor of incumbency argues Benjamin and Lerner. 

Benjamin did give the amendment an A in some regards. He said the Voting Rights Act criteria is well protected in the amendment, ensuring groups of interest, such as racial minorities, are kept together. He also lauded the requirement for public hearings and access to information. 

Some good government groups, noted Benjamin, have decided to take the amendment as the best that can be done, though not ideal. 

Independent Commission? 

Under the amendment, the independent commission would be made up of 10 members. The four legislative leaders (one Republican and one Democrat from both the Senate and Assembly) would appoint two members each. The other two would be chosen by some of those appointees. 

Although the appointees are not partisan legislators, they could be chosen based on their willingness to follow each party’s line. The committee could manifest the same power relationship that is at work in the Legislature. 

Although this process has been partisan for a long time, this is the first time people have been this interested in redistricting, said Lerner of Common Cause New York at a panel discussion on redistricting at Baruch College Tuesday evening. 

“There is a political moment here, and if the political moment is not going to result in real reform, then the political moment must carry forward to November,” said Lerner.