Welcome to the latest edition of this NYC civics-focused newsletter. I’m journalist Felipe De La Hoz, and today we’re discussing New York’s new congressional maps, which will ultimately dictate how federal and state representation will work in the state for the next decade.
As we alluded to last week, the unsurprising failure of New York’s independent redistricting commission, approved by the voters as a constitutional amendment in 2014, sent the task of drawing the state’s new state and federal maps post the 2020 census to the State Legislature. This week, the legislature — which features full Democratic control during a redistricting year for the first time in over seven decades — approved the heavily gerrymandered maps it quickly and quietly issued last week. Gov. Kathy Hochul is expected to sign them.
Is New York turning blue anyway?
In defending the maps, State Sen. Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader and public face of the redistricting process, has claimed that they are merely the representation of a state that is increasingly trending blue anyway, and that they completely comply with legal restrictions against gerrymandering (which themselves were tightened in 2014 along with the creation of the doomed commission).
He might be correct from a purely legal perspective; a group of voters have now sued in state court to have the maps thrown out, but most legal observers are skeptical that the lawsuit will go anywhere, particularly as we draw closer to the elections themselves. Courts have generally been reluctant to throw out electoral maps, especially when that would interfere with the elections process in progress. If the court did ultimately agree that they were unlawfully drawn, it could order the legislature to redraw them, or directly appoint a third party expert to do so impartially.
In practical terms, that the maps favor Democrats is hardly up for dispute. It is expected to give them an edge in 22 out of what would now be 26 congressional districts, a bump up from the current 19 seats the party holds, and largely accomplished through adding more liberal enclaves to what are now solidly GOP districts. One Republican-held district would disappear altogether, owing to the loss of a congressional seat prompted by a population decline as counted by the census. The legislature is also expected to vote on state-level maps as soon as today.
These are the basic nuts and bolts of the process thus far, but the more interesting question is what to make of it all. There are a few different ways to look at it; on the one hand, we could view gerrymandering as self-evidently bad, and that’s certainly how a lot of people view it, in a decontextualized way where it is always a net negative to civic participation and democracy.
Legislatures draw maps to disenfranchise the other party
It’s hard to argue against this point when its objective is rather explicitly to emphasize certain populations’ political preferences and de-emphasize others’. On its face, it seems indefensible. Yet this is not a perfect world with an otherwise equitable system. Republicans in control of state legislatures around the country have gerrymandered to the hilt specifically to disenfranchise the political constituency that these maps may favor.
No lawmakers will ever publicly admit that this is what the maps are doing (doing so would be not only politically but legally perilous), but some advocates and commentators are happy to lay it all out. With Democrats in control, turning the drawing of political maps over to impartial third-party experts, as California did, is akin to unilateral disarmament, the thinking goes — acting out of principle only to get steamrolled by your opponents, who will then gleefully dynamite every one of your political priorities. Perhaps that in itself is irresponsible. It’s failing to represent your own constituency properly.
It becomes a version of the same conversation around packing the Supreme Court or overruling the Senate parliamentarian. We can all basically agree that, in theory, it’s antidemocratic and risks escalating into a naked power struggle between disparate sides. Yet, there’s at least an argument to be made that if one side decides to move aggressively ahead with that agenda anyway, the other side refusing to do so is akin to giving up. Then there’s the opposite argument that this will all collectively careen our democracy into the gutter via constant one-upmanship between warring sides.
Political gerrymandering is a proxy for racial gerrymandering
One thing that’s worth keeping in mind is that, though political gerrymandering is typically used as a proxy for racial gerrymandering, and that is often more or less the form it takes, it is not strictly the same thing. In the case of New York’s new maps, some groups representing communities of color are actually opposed to the new maps, and are instead pushing the so-called Unity Map, a proposal developed jointly by the Asian American Legal Defense Fund, the Center for Law and Social Justice, and Latino Justice.
In the wake of the legislative vote to approve the gerrymandered maps, these groups have actually urged them to be scrapped, adding another dimension to the conversation. Sure, they’re drawn to maximize political power for the Democrats, who are broadly seen as the party of choice for minority communities, and yet these social justice and civil rights organizations contend that the districts themselves are drawn in ways that split communities apart.
More so than some esoteric principle about fairness in what has become a winner-take-all political dynamic, it’s this reality that takes the wind out of the sails of state Democrats’ plans. If you’re not giving a political voice to the very marginalized communities that you’re constantly representing as the future of your party, then what’s the point?