The Olympics don’t seem to be attracting much attention, but the process of redrawing legislative districts is. It’s a sporting event for the political crowd, with winners and losers.
Redistricting is about numbers. You start with the federal census, determine how many people live in each block or tract and then start putting those blocks and tracts together until you have a legislative district – federal, state, local – that approximates the average number of residents in the state, county or city divided by the number of legislators that someone back in time decided would be sent to Congress, the State Legislature, the County Legislature or the City Council. Ideally the districts should be relatively compact with contiguous geography while avoiding creating districts that favor one party or demographic group over another one.
Those ideal criteria, of course, are generally ignored over the long history of legislative districting in the United States. Instead, we read about and become conditioned to expect the creation of legislative districts that are anything but compact, contiguous, non-partisan or blind to the demographics of the state or locality. There is a word for that – gerrymandering.
Many county legislatures in New York State, including Erie and Niagara, have already settled on their districts for the next ten years with hardly a whimper of difficulty. City councils in the area are taking their time about approving their districts, but it is likely that you will not read much about that process once it occurs. The action now concerns federal and state redistricting which has been in the hands of the members of the State Legislature, or more accurately, the Democratic majorities in the Assembly and Senate.
It was not supposed to be this way, but it has mostly been this way going back a couple of centuries. More recent experience has led to an experiment that in 2022 is proving to be unworkable. Hey, this is New York State.
In 2012 Republicans still had some influence on the redistricting process through the State Senate but with Democrats firmly in charge of the Assembly there was no agreement to be found on congressional redistricting. A federal court got involved and districts were subsequently drawn by a master appointed by the court.
That action led in 2014 to a state constitutional amendment that created an Independent Redistricting Commission that on a bi-partisan basis was charged with drawing new district lines. The change also stated that districts would need to be as compact and contiguous as possible while avoiding obvious party enrollment shenanigans.
The Commission set about its work in 2021 but could not come to an agreement on one map, so each party submitted its own version. The recommendations were submitted to the Legislature and rejected by two-thirds votes, thus freeing the Legislature to draw its own lines. Last week the Legislature approved the congressional and state legislative districts.
As one might expect in a situation where one party dominated, the approved re-districting suited Democrats and angered Republicans. Court action from the Republicans began on February 3rd.
Republican objections, while anticipated, are basically following the traditional Redistricting 101 Guidebook for parties out of power. Redistricting is going on in every state and none of the New York Republicans now complaining had anything negative to say about Republican gerrymandering in Texas, Florida, Tennessee, North Carolina, or other Republican-controlled states. New York Republicans in decades past did their own gerrymandering. Their legacy lives on. The reason we now have sixty-three senators instead of sixty is that Republicans simply added Senate seats over previous cycles to maintain their control of the Senate.
As things stand now, here are some observations about certain federal and state districts in Western New York:
- Brian Higgins must be very happy. His new 26th district is overwhelming Democratic and adds those areas of Amherst and Niagara Falls not in the current district. The redraw also add the Town of Niagara and about 93 percent of the Town of Wheatfield.
- Chris Jacobs wasted little time planting his flag in the new 24thdistrict, which skirts along Lake Ontario from Lewiston to Watertown, which by calculations of Buffalo News reporter Jerry Zremski is 256 miles long. Jacobs will move his residence to get into the new district. The district is overwhelming Republican, which probably explains why Jacobs has not been joining in the Republican chorus of complainers.
- And then there is the new 23rd district, also heavily Republican and also stretching a long way from Lake Erie to Broome County, including towns in the southern part of Erie County. Congresswoman Claudia Tenney, whose current district is based in central New York, is planning to move into the 23rd. Tenney is one of the Trumpiest of Trumpkin members of Congress, so Erie County is in for a treat.
- The new State Senate 63rd district places incumbent Democrat Tim Kennedy and Republican Ed Rath in the same district. Rath is a good campaigner but the district is overwhelmingly Democratic by registration and Kennedy has about $2 million in his campaign account so a Kennedy versus Rath campaign is unlikely. The neighboring district to Rath’s current district is occupied by fellow Republican Senator Pat Gallivan. Given Rath’s long-time connections to the Town of Amherst a race for the 146th Assembly District against Karen McMahon might be tempting for Rath. Historic note: prior to his 28 year congressional career John LaFalce started his elected history with a term in the Senate followed by a term in the Assembly.
- Gallivan’s new 61st senate district includes Cheektowaga, which could encourage a stronger Democratic challenge than Gallivan has been used to.
- Sean Ryan’s new 60th District, like the 149th Assembly District he formally represented, continues to bind together territory north and south with a narrow strip of land along Lake Erie.
- A major change in district boundaries comes in the 143rd District which is represented by Democrat Monica Wallace. Wallace survived with a narrow victory in 2020 over an unknown and underfunded Republican. The new 143rd District loses a portion of the Town of Lancaster but gains substantial Democratic territory in Buffalo, which should make her re-election prospects considerably better.
- Assemblymember Pat Burke’s 142nd District splits off a portion of the Town of Orchard Park. In redistricting scenarios gone by a “Town Rule” applied, meaning that unless a town was larger than the population of an average Assembly district, towns were never subdivided.
What comes next?
The legal challenges have begun. The political calendar for 2022 that has been published follows a schedule necessary for a June 28th primary. That means that petitions for congressional and state legislative districts will be circulated starting on March 1. If a court finds that the challenge may have merit it could re-set the calendar. August primary anyone?
In the words of the immortal Yogi Berra, “it ain’t over till it’s over.” Sounds about right for New York 2022 redistricting.
Jeff Wice, a senior fellow at New York Law School’s Census and Redistricting Institute who has had decades of experience with New York State redistricting, is quoted in Politico saying “[t]he state courts in New York have been very reticent to reject any plans enacted by the state Legislature. The courts don’t see it as their role.”
If you’re looking for actual reform, a national solution is really required. It would be unrealistic to expect Democrats in New York to unilaterally disarm and give up gerrymandering congressional seats if Republicans in other states persist in such shenanigans. Unfortunately, the logical arbiter, the U.S. Supreme Court, recently washed its hands of the matter, saying it would not review partisan gerrymandering disputes: another erosion of our democratic republic and any semblance of “one man, one vote”.
The Republican National Committee, at its meeting last week, unanimously pronounced the January 6th insurrection at the United States Capitol to be “legitimate political discourse.” It was in fact a riot that led to several deaths and dozens injured. Wondering: who represented the New York State Republican Party at that meeting and voted in favor of declaring the riot “legitimate political discourse?”
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