Democrats Have a Chance to Undo New York’s Unfriendly Congressional Map

Photo: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images

The results of the 2022 election were bittersweet for the national Democratic Party. Though the red wave did not materialize, and they held onto control of the Senate, Democrats lost the House by five seats, four of which were lost in New York after a protracted redistricting fight. This year, Democrats in New York might get another chance at redrawing the maps thanks to a case currently being heard in the courts.

In Hoffman v. New York State Independent Redistricting Commission, a group of New York voters are arguing that the court that threw out the originally proposed congressional map never specified whether the map that took its place was merely an interim map or was intended to serve as the state’s map for the next ten years as usual. The plaintiffs also argue that the redistricting process needs to be redone by the commission tasked with drawing district maps in the first place, saying it didn’t fulfill its constitutional obligations after failing to agree on a final map, leaving it to state lawmakers and, later, a state-appointed expert to do it. The case is currently being heard by an Albany appellate court, which could rule on the matter at any time.

Upon its release, the special master’s map was swiftly criticized by Democrats for its extensive overhaul of the state’s House districts, which complicated the reelection of several incumbents and merged voter populations. Hakeem Jeffries, the House minority leader, has condemned the process, saying the travel logistics of the public hearings prevented non-white voters in particular from being able to weigh in and have their interests represented.

“Right now, New Yorkers are governed by congressional maps that were drawn by an unelected, out-of-town special master, and rubber-stamped by a partisan judge. While we continue to await the court’s decision, one fact has been made resoundingly clear throughout the process: Letting the current maps stand would be undemocratic, unacceptable, and unconscionable,” Justin Chermol, a Jeffries spokesperson, said in a statement.

There are signs that the plaintiffs’ argument might prevail, according to Jeff Wice, a professor at New York Law School, who attended a court hearing for the case.

“The court seemed receptive to the arguments made by the Hoffman plaintiffs’ attorneys. Of the five judges, one was skeptical, and one didn’t say a word. But the three judges that engaged in dialogue with the attorneys at least seemed receptive to the arguments in a way that, clearly, the trial judge last year was not receptive to,” said Wice, who also serves as the senior fellow at the New York Census and Redistricting Institute.

This all has its roots in the first attempt to redraw the state’s maps last year. With the state losing one congressional district following the 2020 U.S. Census because of slow population growth, the commission was tasked with drawing new lines to accommodate the smaller number of seats. But the politically diverse panel couldn’t come to an agreement on its two sets of maps by the designated time. As a result, the Democratic-controlled state legislature stepped in, producing a map that heavily favored the party.

Almost as soon as Governor Kathy Hochul signed off on the legislature’s map, a court challenge was filed in Steuben County, a Republican-friendly jurisdiction. Subsequent challenges and appeals resulted in the matter coming before the Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, which ruled against the map and ordered that a special master be assigned to draw new congressional districts to be used in the 2022 elections.

The results for Democrats were stark. Many old districts were merged, forcing House colleagues to decide between challenging a member of their caucus or seeking a new place to run from. Veteran politicians Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney would face off, resulting in Maloney’s loss. Freshman-progressive Mondaire Jones opted to run an unsuccessful campaign in the crowded Tenth District primary after Sean Patrick Maloney, the then-head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, relocated to the 17th District, which Jones once repped. There were also claims that the special master did not consider concerns about representation from minority voters, particularly in the city.

In the end, Democrats would suffer significant losses. Maloney’s standing as head of the caucus’s campaign arm wouldn’t save him from defeat by his Republican challenger, Mike Lawler. The party ceded three additional seats on Long Island to the Republicans, including one to George Santos, who it turned out had lied his way through the entire campaign without being caught.

Even if the appellate court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in Hoffman, the case is likely to be appealed all the way to the Court of Appeals, where Democrats may get a more favorable chance this time around. Janet DiFiore, the chief judge who handed down the original ruling, has since retired and, after a lengthy process, was replaced by Rowan Wilson, who previously served as an associate judge on the court and was a dissenter in its decision to throw out the legislature’s map. Wilson’s associate position was filled by Caitlin Halligan, whose perspective on the redistricting question isn’t specifically known, but she is thought to be more liberal-leaning.

In the eyes of Republicans, the Hoffman case is meritless and is merely a political attempt by Democrats to try to overturn 2022 losses in the courts.

“New York Democrats are still licking their wounds from last year’s losses, and instead of looking in the mirror, they’re trying to change the rules of the game. At the end of the day, New Yorkers want safer streets and more money in their pocket, both of which Democrats cannot deliver on, regardless of district lines,” said Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the National Republican Congressional Committee, in a statement.

If the courts rule in favor of Hoffman, the trickiest part likely still lies ahead. In order for a new map to be used in time for the 2024 election, the commission will have to hold 12 public hearings across the state as required by law and come together to agree upon a map all before ballot petitioning begins on March 1. (Candidates are required to obtain voter signatures to get onto the ballot, a task that’s hard to do if you don’t know what district you’re running in.)

Though the commission did manage to come together this year to approve new maps for the state assembly following a court challenge, Wice notes that coming to an agreement on a congressional map could end up being a more difficult task.

“The Republican members of the commission are already on record as opposing the congressional redistricting being revisited. So they might not play ball with the Democrats as they did with the assembly remapping,” he said.

If the commission is able to settle upon a final map, then the legislature will have to vote on the new lines. But lawmakers won’t be able to make their own amendments to the map. They’d have to send it back to the commission and start it all over again, something that would further prolong the process.

“That could take two, three days; it could take a month. These are things beyond our knowing right now,” Wice said. “But the clock is ticking. That’s very clear.”

Democrats Have a Chance to Undo New York’s Congressional Map