Earlier this week, when I looked at Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’ decision to reject his party’s newly redrawn congressional district map, the nagging issue of gerrymandering was front and center in the discussion. The Governor’s decision was clearly based entirely on his opinion that his party hadn’t gerrymandered the map hard enough. While I would still prefer to see gerrymandering eliminated across the country, I was forced to admit that Republicans would need to fight fire with fire because the Democrats have been busy gerrymandering the maps in the states they control as hard as they possibly can. One example of that was seen in New York, where Democrats were poised to nab an additional four seats using a tortured map that jammed as many of the state’s vastly outnumbered Republicans as possible into just four districts. That plan may be in danger now, however, after a judge threw out the New York map last night as being a violation of the state constitution.
A New York state judge on Thursday threw out the state’s new Democratic-backed congressional map as unconstitutional and ordered lawmakers to redraw the lines, a decision that could significantly hurt the party’s chances of retaining control of the U.S. Congress in November’s elections.
Steuben County Supreme Court Judge Patrick McAllister said the map violated a constitutional provision that districts should not be drawn to favor one political party over another.
The map, passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature and signed into law by Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul in February, gave the party the advantage in 22 of the state’s 26 districts, according to analysts. Democrats currently hold 19 of 27 districts and the state will lose one seat this year due to sluggish population growth.
The state’s Democrat-controlled legislature approved the map earlier this year and Governor Kathy Hochul recently signed off on it. But Judge McAllister found that the map was so egregiously drawn to favor the state’s liberals that it violated a recently added provision in the state constitution. In 2015, voters approved the creation of a constitutionally-mandated “Independent Redistricting Commission” that would be tasked with creating new maps when required. The ten members of the commission were to be nominated by legislative leaders from both parties in equal numbers, hypothetically leading to a bipartisan result. This was the first cycle where the Commission was called into duty and you can see how well that worked out.
The problem with establishing a ruling based on that constitutional provision is that the wording is so slippery. For example, the districts are supposed to be comprised of a roughly equal number of residents, but only “to the extent practicable.” The districts are also to “consist of contiguous territory and shall be as compact in form as practicable.” And while the provision doesn’t mention equity between the political parties by name, it does say that the districts “cannot be drawn to discourage competition, or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents.”
That’s an awful lot of vague wording, leaving questions as to how much gerrymandering isn’t “practicable” in the eye of the beholder. In this case, Judge McAllister was doing the beholding, but the ruling was immediately appealed and the appellate court may see things differently. Meanwhile, until the appeal is heard, the judge gave the commission until April 11 to come up with a more bipartisan map. If they fail to do so, he claimed that he would “appoint an expert” to redraw the map for them. Who such an “expert” might be and under what authority they might do so wasn’t specified.
Does this mean that DeSantis should likewise abandon his own plan for a more aggressively partisan districting scheme? Not at all. There’s still a strong likelihood that the current New York map will be resurrected on appeal. In fact, a spokesperson for the state Democratic Party told reporters they “always knew this case would be decided by the appellate courts.” And even if a new, less biased map is somehow put in place, there are still plenty of states with horribly uneven maps that obviously favor one party or the other. As I wrote in the article about the Florida map, unless everyone is going to agree to play fairly, this is a question of political warfare. And the GOP will need to keep firing until everyone simultaneously agrees to a ceasefire.