A Brief Guide to New York’s Redistricting Mess

Photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP via Getty Images

New York’s electoral system is suddenly in some turmoil. In late March, a judge ruled that new congressional and local maps amounted to a Democratic gerrymander, threw them out, and gave the legislature a deadline to draw up new ones. Democrats appealed, and they have a good chance of prevailing in higher court. But if the decision is upheld, it runs the risk of delaying the June primaries by several months in order to accommodate potential changes to district boundaries.

Here’s a brief look at the brouhaha over the maps, and where things go from here.

How did we get here?

In 2014, New Yorkers backed a ballot proposal that created an independent redistricting commission, which would draw the lines for the state’s congressional and legislative maps. The law was meant to prevent the kind of brazen gerrymandering advanced by mostly Republican legislatures after the 2010 elections. But when it came time to draw new boundaries after the 2020 Census, the panel’s members fought amongst themselves and ultimately failed to agree on a final plan. As a result, the Democratic legislature stepped in and produced its own maps, resulting in a proposal that — no surprise — leaned heavily in favor of state Democrats.

Under the legislature’s plan, Democrats in Congress could gain up to three seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and cut Republican representation in the state by about half, using some innovative maneuvers to do so. If instituted, the plan would help erase Republicans’ national advantage in the House of Representatives. State Republicans denounced the maps as partisan gerrymandering.

The challenge.

Soon after Governor Kathy Hochul signed the maps into law in February, opponents filed a legal challenge in Steuben County Supreme Court, a Republican-friendly jurisdiction. (In New York, the Supreme Court is actually a lower-level court in the hierarchy.) They named the governor, top Democratic lawmakers like Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins, and the Board of Elections in the suit.

In late March, a State Supreme Court judge sided with the petitioners, finding the Assembly, State Senate, and congressional maps to be unconstitutional and declaring them void. The judge ruled that the legislature has until April 11 to draw new lines. If lawmakers in Albany fail to come to an agreement or don’t submit any maps to the court at all, the court will bring in a neutral expert to draw new maps “at state’s expense.”

This outcome risks throwing the entire election season into upheaval, with a chance that the state primary would have to be moved to accommodate changes. New York’s primary is currently scheduled for June 28, but it could be pushed as far back as August 23 if more time is needed to sort out all the changes.

The appeal.

Following the judge’s ruling, Hochul, state attorney general Letitia James, and Democratic legislative leaders filed appeals to the State Supreme Court’s appellate division in Rochester. Soon after, a judge there officially ordered a stay, placing the original order temporarily on hold and leaving the maps intact during the appeals process.

Then on Thursday, three judges on the five-person panel ruled that the congressional map approved by the legislature unfairly favored Democrats and was an example of partisan gerrymandering. The new lines for the State Senate and Assembly districts were upheld.

The appeals court gave the legislature until April 30 to produce a new map for the state’s U.S. House districts. The matter is expected to be appealed to the New York Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court. The court’s seven judges were all appointed by Hochul and her predecessor, former governor Andrew Cuomo, leaving many to speculate that a final decision might lean in favor of the legislature, ultimately maintaining a Democratic advantage.

A Brief Guide to New York’s Redistricting Mess