Credit: Courtesy of https://davesredistricting.org/

In 2014, New York voters approved changes to the state Constitution designed to reform the congressional and state legislative redistricting process and end partisan gamesmanship. Or so they thought. Sadly, this reform was doomed to fail. New Yorkers deserve to know why and what they can do about it.

What started out as a genuine reform effort became a casualty of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s war with Albany Democrats. Cuomo’s alliance with state Senate Republicans led to changes in the redistricting reforms that guaranteed failure. The reforms created a commission with no independent power, no way of controlling its own work and, most fatally, no way to break a partisan deadlock.

In January, the commission presented two sets of partisan maps. When the legislature rejected those, the commission refused to offer a second set of plans, required by the state Constitution. Democrats in the legislature quickly passed an entirely different set of maps and Republicans brought a lawsuit against them. The GOP challenged the legislature’s right to draw maps at all and further claimed the legislature’s congressional and state Senate maps were gerrymandered. The courts ruled in favor of the GOP and adopted new plans drawn by an outside redistricting expert. A ruling Friday in another challenge could mean state Assembly districts must be redrawn for the 2024 elections.

It’s time to start over. Real reform of the state’s redistricting process must address shortcomings in both the commission process and the mapmaking rules.

Without real reform, New York might see a repetition of this year’s fiasco in the next go-round. Redistricting should result in fair districts where voters can choose their elected officials in an orderly rational way.

So how do we start? First, the new amendment must create a commission that can actually reach decisions. This commission must either have a tiebreaking chair or odd number of members (to avoid tie votes), and it must also operate under simple rules that ensure partisan breakdowns never occur again. These rules must not be left to the legislature’s partisan leaders.

A second important question is whether the commission or the legislature should have final authority. Some argue that the legislature must have the last word, since it was always thought to have final power to enact redistricting legislation before this year's court decisions. Others say that need not be the case in the future.

Completely independent commissions have worked well in other states, including California, Arizona and Michigan. These commissions include members who are not responsible to legislative leaders. They conduct their deliberations in public at every step of the process. Maps are approved by a majority of the commission members with support from the major parties and independent members.

New Jersey’s bipartisan commission serves as a model for another type of commission. There, final decisions are made by the commission with support from a majority of its members, often decided by the tiebreaking chair (who is independent of the political parties). The tiebreaking chair usually goes to a well-respected academic expert, and the process has gone well there.

New Jersey also has separate commissions for state legislative and congressional districts. That approach might help alleviate concerns that New York’s focus on ending partisan bias meant we “unilaterally disarmed,” allowing other states to gerrymander congressional districts at will.

The state Constitution’s redistricting rules need to be revised to create a fixed number of Senate districts, create a permanent end to prison-based gerrymandering (where rural state prison populations are used to inflate district size), and repeal obsolete rules that have been needlessly left in the Constitution since 1894.

As for the mapmaking rules, they are impractical and inefficient. They include a hodgepodge of confusing and incoherent reforms inserted into the Constitution over a 125-year period, including equal population, contiguity, compactness, competitiveness, lack of partisan bias, minority voting rights, and respect for municipal boundaries and communities of interest.

Since there is no way to maximize all these rules at the same time, they should be prioritized and well defined. Some rules are more important than others and the Constitution should say so. It shouldn’t be up to the legislature and the courts to figure out what the rules mean and how they are applied.

Priority-ranking would help avoid the problem that developed this year when the courts focused almost exclusively on partisan gerrymandering, ignoring several other criteria found in the Constitution, such as considering communities of interest, cores of existing districts, maintaining jurisdictional boundaries, and especially minority voting rights.

A good rank-ordering should include, in priority order: population equality, fair representation of minority groups, geographic contiguity, preservation of existing political subdivisions (such as counties, cities, and towns), measures of compactness, preservation of defined communities of interest, and making it easy for county boards of elections to conduct elections with new maps. Partisan gerrymandering would practically be solved if these standards are given high priority. Similarly, preserving the cores of existing districts and keeping incumbents in their districts could be included, but as lower-ranked priorities.

Redistricting reform efforts should get underway while the 2022 debacle is still fresh in voters’ minds. There should be informed research about what had worked in other states and what best suits New York. That should be followed by rigorous public debate. Two separately elected state legislatures must consider and pass an amendment before voters can approve it. Let’s not let this opportunity slip away.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jeffrey M. Wice, adjunct professor and senior fellow at New York Law School, and political scientist Steven Elliott. Both authors worked on redistricting for the New York State Legislature in past decades.

This guest essay reflects the views of Jeffrey M. Wice, adjunct professor and senior fellow at New York Law School, and political scientist Steven Elliott. Both authors worked on redistricting for the New York State Legislature in past decades.