For generations, New York’s redistricting process has been controlled entirely by the State Legislature. Once a decade the majority party in each house would draw district lines to give themselves the best chance to remain in power. In 2014, New Yorkers rejected this brazenly partisan process by voting for a constitutional amendment to create an independent redistricting commission.
The new, fairer redistricting process has established a 10-member commission to redraw both state legislative and congressional lines based on the 2020 census figures. But rather than respect the will of the voters, the legislature has worked to undermine the new commission at every turn.
The legislature dragged its feet in providing any operational support to the first eight legislative appointees to the commission. Questions have been raised as to whether the racial and gender makeup of this group reflects New York’s diversity. During the last two sessions, the legislature passed a new constitutional amendment that has yet to go before voters that would strip away the minority party’s power in the redistricting process.
And now the commission is being stymied by the legislature once again.
Last April, the commission was set to receive $1 million in funding from the Department of State to begin its work. This was far less than the $3 million per year the commission requested, and pales in comparison to what other states are spending on their redistricting processes.
This money was initially held up for unknown reasons. Now the funding is being given as a grant through the SUNY Research Foundation, which imposes limitations on the commission. The foundation would have control over the commission’s operations and would take a 10% fee from the grant. Understandably, a bipartisan majority of the commission has rejected the grant under those terms.
The first constitutional amendment, which was passed twice by the legislature and overwhelmingly approved by voters, did not call for the SUNY Research Foundation to draw our state and congressional lines. It called for an independent commission, free from outside influence and beholden only to the people of New York State.
The amendment set out clear parameters for how the commission should operate to ensure its independence. This includes language addressing gerrymandering and prohibiting lines from being drawn that discourage competition or favor or harm a party. It also mandated that the commission hold 12 public hearings around the state.
Unfortunately, without funding, the commission doesn’t even have government email addresses, a website, staff or the ability to begin planning public hearings. The commission couldn’t even accept files related to the redistricting process that were released last month by the Census Bureau because there is no operational software to do so.
Even with the delay of final census population counts, 49 other states are preparing for this once-in-a-decade undertaking. New York is being left behind.
The New York State Legislature postures itself as a progressive, fair and forward-thinking body. This obvious attempt to usurp the state’s first independent redistricting commission shows the opposite to be true. If New York truly wants to be a leader, we need to stop this charade and give the commission the resources it needs to operate independently and start work immediately. The people of New York are waiting.
Laura Ladd Bierman is the executive director of the League of Women Voters of New York State. Betsy Gotbaum is the executive director of Citizens Union.