early and often

How to Gerrymander a Fiasco

New York Democrats have once again made the state a national laughingstock.

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

There’s still a lot of chaos and confusion surrounding New York’s broken election system, but as of this writing we know that the proposed boundaries of all 61 State Senate districts and all 27 congressional districts are null and void: The state’s highest court has ruled that the new lines were created in ways that violated the state constitution and gave an illegal advantage to the Democratic Party, which controls the Assembly and State Senate.

All the districts must be redrawn in the next few weeks by a court-appointed special master. Primaries to select each party’s nominees in the new districts have been moved from June 28 to August 23.

The sudden changes in the maps mean that some candidates — who’d already raised hundreds of thousands of dollars and begun knocking on doors and buying ads — might discover it was a lot of wasted effort: They could find themselves drawn into an entirely different district, and might have to begin campaigning all over again.

It’s too soon to know exactly which politicians will benefit from the new court-ordered maps, but two things are clear: (1) New York will retain its unwanted status as a national laughingstock, hopelessly incapable of operating a fair and legal voting system; and (2) Democratic hopes of flipping a few Republican-held districts to help keep control of Congress in this fall’s midterm elections are more distant than ever.

Democratic leaders brazenly violated New York’s laws governing redistricting, set out in detailed amendments to the state constitution that took effect in 2014. Despite a legal requirement to consider maps submitted by a bipartisan independent commission, the legislature moved ahead without waiting for the commission.

They also aggressively drew congressional districts in ways clearly designed to favor Democrats. The 11th District, which covers all of conservative Staten Island, has long included similarly right-leaning parts of Bay Ridge, Dyker Heights, and Bath Beach — but the legislature’s proposed maps snaked the lines northward into liberal parts of Sunset Park and Park Slope in a blatant attempt to make it harder for the Republican incumbent, Nicole Malliotakis, to get reelected. President Trump won the current district with 52 percent of the vote; the (now illegal) district proposed by the legislature would have been carried by Joe Biden with 54 percent.

Similar changes would have made the District 1 in eastern Long Island (represented by Republican Lee Zeldin) go from 52 percent for Trump to 55 percent for Biden. And upstate, District 22 (represented by Republican John Katko) would have turned a deeper shade of blue, from 53 percent for Biden to 58 percent. Both districts are open seats — Zeldin is running for governor and Katko is retiring — and Dems clearly had their sights set on flipping the districts by stuffing them with pro-Biden voters who might be more likely to vote Democratic for congress.

All the shenanigans drew a firm rebuke from the state’s highest court, instead.

“The enactment of the congressional and senate maps by the legislature was procedurally unconstitutional, and the congressional map is also substantively unconstitutional as drawn with impermissible partisan purpose, leaving the state without constitutional district lines for use in the 2022 primary and general elections,” the Court of Appeals ruled in a sternly worded opinion, later nothing that “we are left in the same predicament as if no maps had been enacted. Prompt judicial intervention is both necessary  and appropriate to guarantee the People’s right to a free and fair election.”

In theory, the slippery mapmaking was supposed to yield a greater political good: flipping a few Republican-held congressional districts in order to help embattled congressional Democrats hold onto control of the House of Representatives, where the party currently holds a razor-thin majority of only 221 seats, barely more than the 218 necessary for control. New York’s part in that strategy is considerably less likely to succeed now that the attempted rigging of the game has been exposed and declared illegal. A look at the national scene suggests that the three seats that New York Dems hoped to flip wouldn’t be nearly enough to save the national party from a looming electoral rout.

Since World War II, the President’s Party has lost an average of 26 seats in the House in the midterms — far more than the five-seat margin Dems currently have. There have been 19 midterm elections since 1946, and only twice has the president’s party gained seats: in 1998, when there was a backlash against Republicans following the impeachment of President Clinton, and in 2002 when the nation rallied behind President Bush in the wake of 9/11.

With President Biden fighting low approval numbers and voters telling pollsters they think Republicans can handle key issues better, House Democrats have been looking for help anyplace they can find it. One sign of desperation is that they hoped to get help from New York — where, it turns out, Democrats thought they could make a power grab but all they got their hands on was more embarrassment.

How to Gerrymander a Fiasco