New York’s top court will soon decide whether to allow the state’s congressional map to be redrawn for a third time this decade, as Democrats seek to eke out more favorable political boundary lines before the 2024 elections.
Democratic lawmakers in the state bungled a gerrymander last year, passing maps that so significantly boosted their congressional prospects that state courts tossed them in favor of a court-drawn map. Now, Democrats are hoping to get a new set of maps approved.
During a hearing Wednesday in Buffalo, Aria Branch, an attorney from the Democratic election firm Elias Law Group, argued on behalf of a group of New York voters that the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) had failed voters when it did not produce maps and must be reconvened for another attempt. Gov. Kathy Hochul and Attorney General Letitia James, both Democrats, filed briefs in support of the petition.
“The IRC has never been held to account for its failure,” Branch said Wednesday.
Republicans have asked the court to leave the current map in place, pointing to the Democratic Legislature’s ability to overrule the commission.
“The worst-case scenario — the one that’s completely out of bounds — is to have a mid-decade redistricting by the Legislature, regardless of whether the IRC is involved. That’s a recipe for another festival of gerrymandering,” attorney Misha Tseytlin said, arguing on behalf of the Republican voters who challenged the Democrats’ first map.
The Independent Redistricting Commission deadlocked last year, making way for the Democratic-controlled Legislature to step in with a congressional map that was expected to elect just four Republicans in the state’s 26 districts. The court-ordered map implemented in its place, coupled with strong Republican turnout, elected 11 Republicans and 15 Democrats in 2022.
The U.S. House is currently controlled by Republicans, who have a slim eight-seat majority. Democrats have invested heavily in challenging Republican gerrymanders elsewhere across the country. Two years into this decade’s redistricting cycle — triggered by the 2020 census results — a significant portion of the nation’s maps remain unsettled, with eight states mired in litigation.
Florida, Georgia and Louisiana have had their maps struck down by courts and are in the process of redrawing them. In Alabama, after the U.S. Supreme Court had weighed in, the U.S. District Court for Northern Alabama last month ordered that a new, court-drawn map with a second Black opportunity district be put into place.
New maps in those four states — all Republican gerrymanders — are likely to create four new minority districts, which are wins for Democrats who are reliably the preferred candidates of Southern voters of color.
John Bisognano, president of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said he prefers to focus on fair maps, but politically he expects Democrats will come out on top in this cycle.
“Voters, especially voters across the South, will have their voices heard in 2024 in a way they certainly haven’t been in a really long time, specifically Black voters,” he said.
The political gains for Democrats, however, were undermined by Republicans in North Carolina who redrew the state’s congressional map after the top state court — newly controlled by the GOP — reversed a prior ruling against partisan gerrymandering.
A similar redrawing in New York could reverse those losses, but in Buffalo, some on the seven-judge panel appeared skeptical Wednesday of Democrats’ arguments, asking why the courts should weigh in further when they had made no plans to allow another redrawing process last year.
“Do you find it odd that this high court would decide that, you know what, let’s leave this topic and this state unmoored, so that they’re at their own devices to figure out what happens after 2022?” said Judge Madeline Singas, a Democrat.
Other judges appeared skeptical of an effort to redraw the maps now, rather than demanding the IRC be reconvened last spring after it had failed and the legislature stepped in.
“The top of your argument is that you’ve come here to vindicate the IRC process, which is what was denied,” said Judge Anthony Cannataro, a Democrat. “So it seems you want to have it both ways. You want the IRC process, or do you just want a set of maps that complies or confirms to what you think the maps should be?”