On February 2, New York’s Democratic-controlled state legislature approved a congressional map that would give Democrats an advantage in 22 out of 26 House of Representatives districts—potentially halving the state’s current total of eight House Republicans. The next day, Governor Kathy Hochul signed the new districts into law without objection. We shouldn’t be surprised when majority parties attempt to eliminate competitive and opposition districts in their states, but the current round of redistricting will nevertheless lead to unfortunate consequences.
Empire State Republicans stood to lose even before redistricting began. The U.S. Constitution requires the federal government to reapportion seats in the House of Representatives every ten years in line with census results. Last year, New York discovered that it would lose one of its 27 seats, owing to population loss that mostly occurred in Republican-friendly upstate. Because each state draws its own House (and state legislative) districts, the party in control of the state legislature can favor its own candidates. For the first time in decades, Democrats enjoy supermajority control of New York’s state senate and assembly, rendering Republicans powerless.
In 2012, when New York last underwent reapportionment and redistricting, the legislature failed to agree on new maps drafted by its own lawmakers, leaving the matter in the hands of a three-judge panel of “a reluctant federal court.” This time was supposed to be different. Voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 2014 that empowered a bipartisan, ten-member redistricting commission to propose congressional maps for the state legislature’s approval.
But the commission couldn’t reach a workable solution. Rather than draw a single set of maps representing a compromise solution, it produced a pair of maps created by each party that, predictably, received five votes apiece. The legislature rejected both. On January 30, after the commission failed to create another set of maps, lawmakers proposed their own, which the legislature passed three days later. Governor Hochul, facing a primary challenge and presented with a chance to brighten her party’s prospects for a decade, had little reason not to sign the bill.
Democrats appear headed for substantial losses in this year’s midterm elections, but every seat counts. Thus, New York’s 11th district, home to New York City’s lone Republican representative, Nicole Malliotakis, expands from Staten Island into the Democratic strongholds of Park Slope, Gowanus, and Sunset Park. The first district, encompassing much of Long Island’s eastern half and currently held by Republican gubernatorial candidate Lee Zeldin, now leaves out much of the South Shore and extends so far to the west as to make its four-point tilt for President Trump in 2020 an 11-point landslide for President Biden under the new boundaries. Statewide, Republicans are now left with a mere three or four seats out of 26, even though 37.7 percent of New York’s electorate voted for Donald Trump in 2020.
In 2019, the Supreme Court held that federal courts lacked jurisdiction over partisan gerrymandering claims on the grounds that they presented political, not legal, questions. New York Republicans’ only recourse, therefore, rests with state courts; mere hours after the governor enacted the new districts, a GOP-led group of voters filed a lawsuit in upstate Steuben County. Article 3, Section 4 of the New York constitution provides that districts should “not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties.”
Good-government groups criticized the new maps as obviously engineered to help Democrats. Michael Li, senior counsel at the left-leaning Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, characterized the move as a “master class in how to draw an effective gerrymander,” while David Wasserman, senior editor of the Cook Political Report, wrote that the new lines were “brutal” for Republicans, as they leave few Democrats stranded in Republican districts—effectively maximizing the value of every blue vote. The speed of the legislature’s passage and lack of public hearings made matters worse, preventing concerned citizens of all political backgrounds from calling out those responsible for a blatant power grab. Still, proving intentional favoritism in court will be more difficult, especially given the state’s Democratic tilt.
Partisan redistricting harms the democratic process no matter which party engages in it. If district lines effectively determine nearly all of a state’s delegation before voters cast a single ballot, many will wonder whether it’s worth turning out in November. And since the party in power is unlikely to support any change that potentially jeopardizes its advantage, it’s up to the minority party to champion reforms. New York Republicans, like Texas Democrats, may begin to wonder whether they should push for changes—such as increasing the number of House seats or allowing states to use multi-member districts and proportional representation.
In 1776, John Adams laid out his vision for a representative house of the legislature. “It should be in miniature, an exact portrait of the people at large,” he wrote. “It should think, feel, reason, and act like them. . . . Great care should be taken to effect this, and to prevent unfair, partial, and corrupt elections.” New York’s redistricting is another reminder that the House doesn’t live up to this ideal, but all Americans share an interest in an election system that reflects the will of the people of each state—not that of incumbents or parties.
Photo by Bennett Raglin/Getty Images for UltraViolet, Women's March, Girls for Gender Equity