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Congressional reapportionment bodes political changes in NY

View of the New York state Senate Chamber

View of the New York state Senate Chamber as members meet on the opening day of the 2021 legislative session at the state Capitol, Jan. 6, in Albany. Credit: AP/Hans Pennink

ALBANY — In a matter of days, New York will learn how much ground it will lose in Congress and presidential elections.

The U.S. Census Bureau is scheduled to release state population counts which will be used to determine reapportionment — the allocation of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives. It also determines a state’s number of electoral votes.

It also will trigger a scramble to redraw election districts and force some lawmakers to consider retiring or running for a new office — maybe even for governor or another statewide office. It also will mean, in all likelihood, at least one district currently represented by a New York Republican will disappear, folded into another district.

Because the number of House seats is fixed in law at 435, every time the census is completed, some states gain seats while others lose.

New York knows it will lose at least one of its 27 congressional seats but it could be two. Like Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Empire State has steadily lost seats to states in the South and West. New York has lost at least two seats in each census since 1950.

"New York is going to lose political power. How much depends on how many districts have to go and whose district is going to get vaporized," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.

Currently, each congressional district has to represent about 725,00 residents. That will increase to about 790,000 under the new census.

And because districts must grow, the conventional wisdom in New York is that upstate will lose a congressional district because large swaths of it have seen little or no population growth over the last decade.

One seat lawmakers and analysts immediately have focused on is the Southern Tier district held by Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning), who announced he wouldn’t run for reelection after being accused of sexual misconduct.

"If we know Congressman Reed is retiring, it is not going to be controversial to divide up the 23rd district," said Dan Lamb, a Cornell University professor and former congressional aide. "So I’d expect the Reed district to be divided up significantly."

But it might not be that simple. Especially if two seats are lost.

The task of redrawing the map is controlled by the State Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The state does have a redistricting commission which can draw the maps, but the Legislature can override it.

For decades, because the state Assembly was controlled by Democrats and the Senate by Republicans, the parties each sacrificed one congressional seat when new maps were drawn in New York.

Now, Democrats have a two-thirds majority in both houses after huge gains in the 2018 and 2020 elections.

"The old rule doesn’t apply now," Horner said, noting that Democrats are in the "driver’s seat."

Given the party’s slim majority in Washington, it will try to "maximize" its chances of winning as many New York seats as possible, said Craig Burnett, a political scientist at Hofstra University.

There will be pressure not only from state-level but also national-level politicians because the balance of Congress will be at stake.

"They have been waiting for this for a long time and I think they are going to maximize their opportunities," Burnett said of Democrats. "Republicans are going to cry foul, but Democrats are going to say ‘too bad, you’re doing this in other states.’"

Burnett noted it’s no surprise that Reed — before the harassment accusation derailed his career — was one of several GOP members of Congress talking about running for governor, including Reps. Elise Stefanik (R-Schuylerville) and Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley). All of them could see their congressional district changed, perhaps dramatically.

"Why get out of a comfortable (congressional) seat to make statewide run" unless you’re "wondering if your congressional seat will be in play in 2022?" Burnett said. "This could be a factor, especially if two New York seats are lost."

Those dominoes won’t start falling immediately. Even though the reapportionment numbers are coming out in April, states won’t get the "granular level" population numbers to actually start mulling maps until September. Then, the process will start moving at warp speed for government.

Practically speaking, the state will have to have new maps drawn and approved by January, Horner said, to be ready for the June 2022 primaries.

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