In March 2012, New York governor Andrew Cuomo expressed support for a state constitutional amendment that would, he said, “permanently reform the redistricting process in New York to once and for all end self-interested and partisan gerrymandering.” Sponsored in the state assembly by top Democrats and Republicans and endorsed by influential nonprofits and “good government” advocates, the amendment—called Proposal 1—passed overwhelmingly in the state legislature, was affirmed with over 57 percent of the popular vote on the 2014 ballot, and became part of the state constitution. But just seven years after its approval, and before it was ever implemented, the amendment may be removed and replaced.
What accounts for such a turnaround? The answer is simple. Albany Democrats have something that they didn’t have during the last redistricting cycle: absolute one-party control of New York’s state government.
The original plan established a new ten-member “independent redistricting commission” to redraw congressional and state legislative districts following the 2020 Census. Each of the two major political parties would essentially appoint four commissioners; those appointees would then choose the final two. The district boundaries that the commission drafted required support from two-thirds of legislators in each chamber in the event that the state legislature is controlled by one party. This process would, in theory, allow both the majority and minority parties in each house of the legislature to have power and influence over the thorny process.
Now New York Democrats have put another constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot. Proposal 1 would reduce the threshold for approval of district maps. In the event that the commission cannot agree on redistricting plans, the threshold for legislative approval would be 60 percent, down from two-thirds. (Democrats currently exceed these margins in both chambers.) The plan, if ratified, would cement Democratic power over redistricting, removing Republicans from providing substantive input in future cycles.
The best way to understand what is happening with the Proposition 1 power grab is to recall the circumstances surrounding passage of the last redistricting reform. The 2012 redistricting process was dragged down by partisanship. With Democrats in control of the assembly and Republicans in control of the senate, the chambers could not agree on how to draw districts. The resulting map would ultimately be configured by a three-judge panel in Brooklyn with just days to spare before the legal deadline expired.
Over the past decade, Democrats nationally have lambasted Republican redistricting as a threat to democracy. Democrats in the New York State legislature, however, are demonstrating that the party’s real concern with redistricting is making sure that Democrats control it. Meantime, the advocacy groups and nonprofits that backed the last reform have been relatively silent on Democrats’ current attempts to change the state constitution for their own benefit.
Perhaps New Yorkers should expect nothing less from their representatives. But they do have a say in the matter—at the ballot box. The fate of Proposition 1 this November will reveal whether the less partisan state government we had been promised is still attainable.
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