Redistricting, another primary, more Bill de Blasio … WTF is going on? Our publisher, S. Mitra Kalita, chatted with civics reporter Felipe De La Hoz to get the scoop.
Epicenter: Um, Felipe, I am confused. I just voted in a primary in June. Is there another one now? WHY?
Felipe: Unfortunately, that puts you in the minority! Only 12 percent of registered Democrats and Republicans participated in the June primary, which is already a smaller proportional number than in most cities given the volume of New Yorkers who aren’t registered. But yes, there is another one coming next month, though not for the same offices. Whereas last month you voted in primaries for governor, lieutenant governor, State Assembly, and some judges, in August you can vote for State Senate and U.S. House of Representatives (technically U.S. Senator and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is also up for reelection this year, but he is unsurprisingly running unopposed in the primary, so will only be on the ballot for November’s general election).
The straightforward explanation for this is that the maps for Congress and the State Senate were invalidated by a judge, and by the time new maps were drawn, it was too late for a June primary to take place. The Assembly map was not thrown out, and the governorship and lieutenant governorship are statewide, so their primaries took place as scheduled. The slightly longer explanation is that voters had approved, by constitutional referendum, an independent redistricting commission that was supposed to impartially develop new maps following the 2020 Census. This was to be accomplished by having an equal number of Republican and Democratic commissioners; perhaps you’re starting to predict the problem here.
After the commission predictably deadlocked, the state legislature — in which Democrats have supermajorities — ended up drawing the new maps itself, just as it had done in prior cycles. Almost no one seriously disputes that the resulting maps were heavily gerrymandered in favor of the Democrats, with the congressional one being particularly galling in cutting the number of Republican-leaning districts in half, from 8 to 4. Almost as soon as the maps came out, the Republicans sued, and ended up winning at every level, up to and including the Court of Appeals, which somewhat confusingly is New York’s highest court. The courts tossed out the maps and appointed an outside expert to draw them. However, because the lawsuits were specifically against the U.S. House and State Senate maps, the Assembly map was left untouched, despite having been created by the same process as the other two.
Epicenter: What precisely is being redistricted?
Felipe: Essentially all the districts at the city, state, and federal levels. There’s a separate, ongoing process for the NYC City Council redistricting, though it is shaping up to be a bit less controversial than the state and federal maps. Offices like governor and U.S. senator are statewide, so they are not being affected (though districts still come into play during, for example, the petitioning processes to get on the ballot for governor or senator). The reason this is all happening now is that it’s always tied to the decennial census, which is intended to count every person in the country for purposes including proportional and fair allocation of government representatives. New York is losing one congressional seat (due to a slight population downturn) and ending up with 26 House members. The State Assembly has 150 members, while the Senate has 63 seats. The New York City Council features 51 members.
Epicenter: Who decides on this?
Felipe: The state and federal maps were supposed to be drawn by the 10-person Independent Redistricting Commission, whose members are named by both the legislature and by each other. As discussed above, this didn’t work, with the commission deadlocking 5-5 along party lines. That gave the legislature the opportunity to draw its own maps, which it promptly did. The courts then axed these maps and appointed Jonathan Cervas, a Pennsylvania-based political scientist and political districting expert, to redraw the lines as a neutral arbiter. Ultimately, he is responsible for the congressional and Senate maps, though the Assembly one is still the one developed by the legislature (litigation is ongoing, so this might change). The NYC Council districts are being drawn by a separate commission formed of mayoral and Council appointees.
Epicenter: What prompted it? Who wins or loses?
Felipe: This process happens after every census, though it’s not supposed to be quite so messy. The reasons for this are that our legislative systems of government are built around directly proportional representation (with the notable exception of the rather anti-democratic U.S. Senate), and the census provides the data necessary to accomplish that goal. In theory, the winner is representative democracy; in practice, legislatures around the country try to use the process to engineer permanent advantages by engaging in gerrymandering, the name for the practice of drawing districts for electoral advantage beyond what is proportional.
There are a lot of simple examples floating around, but let’s use one of the most common here. Let’s say you have a state of 20 people, 12 Os and eight Xs. This state must be divided into five districts. The obvious proportional split would be one where two districts included three or four X voters each, giving the Xs an overall two out of five districts, directly proportional to their eight out of twenty population:
XXXO (X wins) — XXXO (X wins) — XOOO (O wins) — XOOO (O wins) — OOOO (O wins)
You could, however, also draw the districts to spread the Xs around and dilute their power:
XXXX (X wins) — XOOO (O wins) — XOOO (O wins) — XOOO (O wins) — XOOO (O wins)
It’s the same exact population and proportion, but in this drawing of districts, the Xs get just one seat as opposed to two. So the districts have been drawn here such that X loses out proportionally to their numbers. That’s the essence of gerrymandering, and what the Democrats did in New York and the Republicans are trying to do in several red states.
Epicenter: As a voter, what are the pros and cons of redistricting?
Felipe: The idea ultimately is that you get better representation, because you’re put in a district that’s more equal in number to the other districts and, crucially, should attempt to preserve some kind of cogent community voting power. That’s why independent redistricters take into account not just numbers but demographics and identifiable common characteristics. So they might judge, for example, that a particular ethnic enclave should be grouped together (but not to the extent that it is all concentrated in one district and loses proportional voting power; see, it’s complicated). The idea, at base, is that every voter has the most accurate representation as possible.
Epicenter: How does it impact me if a candidate I previously elected now has to run for a seat in a different district?
Felipe: Quite simply, you won’t be able to vote for them anymore. It’s possible that you might still have the option to vote for an incumbent from a formerly neighboring district in which you now reside. The redistricting has also led to the bizarre situations of districts with more than one incumbent, including one of the most-watched House primaries this year, for the 12th Congressional district, which used to encompass the East Side of Manhattan and parts of western Brooklyn, and which will now be entirely in Manhattan, east and west. That pits Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerrold Nadler — two powerful House members who’ve each served for about 30 years — against each other in a showdown.
Epicenter: I heard Bill de Blasio was running again and then I heard he wasn’t. What is going on?
Felipe: Good ol’ de Blasio never met a primary he didn’t love, having already and laughably unsuccessfully run for president and toyed with a gubernatorial run. Here, he had a decent shot at the 10th district, but was lagging in the polls and seems to have decided that it wasn’t worth the trouble. Some have also pointed out that he can now use his campaign funds to pay off some outstanding debts he incurred for legal defense in various investigations he faced as mayor.
Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou. Photo: @youline-niou
Epicenter: Any other names I should be aware of?
Felipe: The 10th district race remains one to watch, with some younger rising star Democratic candidates like Councilmember Carlina Rivera and Assemblymember Yuh-line Niou, as well as more establishment types like Daniel Goldman, lead majority counsel for the first Trump impeachment and former city comptroller and House Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman.
Epicenter: Does redistricting affect conversations on social issues like climate change, abortion, gun control? What about my trash pickup or my kid’s schools? Break this down for me.
Felipe: It affects everything, insofar as elected representation affects everything. It’s hard to pinpoint how redistricting specifically affects any one issue or group of issues because ultimately there are some layers of separation here; redistricting affects voting blocks, which affect the representatives sent to city, state, and federal government, who then set a legislative agenda and vote. If, for example, a state is gerrymandered such that it seals in a semi-permanent Republican majority despite changing voter preferences, then it’s likelier that these representatives will oppose action on gun control and climate and support abortion restrictions. It’s obviously not quite as simple as that, but as a matter of general truism, that’s how politics works.