New York Democrats Seize Chance To Draft More Favorable Congressional Map

New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) presided over a rejection of the Independent Redistricting Commission's congressional map earlier this month.
New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) presided over a rejection of the Independent Redistricting Commission's congressional map earlier this month.

New York state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) presided over a rejection of the Independent Redistricting Commission's congressional map earlier this month.

The New York state Legislature, where Democrats have supermajorities in both chambers, voted to reject a congressional map drafted by the state’s bipartisan Independent Redistricting Commission earlier this month

The map drawn by the state’s 10-person commission, evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, had largely preserved the map on which Republicans flipped four U.S. House seats in November 2022. House Democratic Leader Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat, faulted the commission’s new map for, among other things, improving the electoral position of Rep. Marc Molinaro, an upper Hudson Valley Republican.

New York Democrats were not about to ratify a congressional map against the wishes of Jeffries, whose shot at the speakership rides on a strong showing in his home state. The votes in the New York state Assembly and Senate rejecting the commission’s map clear the way for Democrats to draw their own more favorable boundaries. They are expected to draft the new map and vote on it later this week.

The unusual mid-cycle redistricting came about because the new liberal majority on the state’s highest court, the New York State Court of Appeals, effectively reversed the ruling of the court’s more conservative majority nearly two years ago. The high court found that when its predecessors appointed a special master to draw the map in April 2022, rather than giving the legislature a chance to draft alternatives, the court violated the legislature’s constitutional authority over redistricting.

Legal merits aside, the partisan stakes of the mid-cycle redistricting process have always been clear. Democratic lawmakers were hoping to draw congressional district boundaries that would improve the party’s chances of retaking the four House seats that they lost in 2022 without running afoul of the state constitution’s ban on partisan gerrymandering.

Empire State Democrats now have the opportunity to act on that ambition and conduct a do-over of their botched 2022 effort at engineering a partisan advantage within the parameters outlined in the state constitution.

On the floors of the New York state Assembly and the state Senate, Democrats did not speak about why they planned to kill the commission’s map.

But Republicans used their time on the floor to appeal to principles of fairness and bipartisanship, noting that the commission approved its neutral map by a nine to one margin.

“They were able to reach consensus on these maps,” said state Sen. Jack Martins, a Republican who flipped a Democratic-held district on Long Island in 2022. “And again, that’s something we should celebrate. The Constitution worked, the process worked.”

In the end, though, the New York State Court of Appeals has interpreted the constitutional ban on partisan gerrymandering such that Democrats in the legislature will now have the chance to draw districts that make it easier for them to retake the House, so long as they can justify doing so for a constitutionally permissible reason rather than partisan gain.

That task could be harder than it looks, however. In January 2022, the Democratic-controlled legislature drafted congressional and legislative maps that provided them with such a big partisan advantage that the maps were struck down in court. Two congressional districts, in particular, even drew snickers from some allies: an attempt to turn Staten Island blue by fashioning a district that combined the Republican bastion with the deeply liberal Brooklyn neighborhood Park Slope; and a bit of creative mapmaking connecting Long Island’s North Shore to a non-contiguous stretch of coastal Westchester County.

Even with the reprieve provided by a newly christened liberal majority on the New York State Court of Appeals, New York Democrats are likely to pursue more modest ambitions in the hopes of avoiding an extended court battle that risks once again delaying the state’s congressional primaries. The court-appointed special master’s release of a last-minute congressional map in May 2022 prompted the state to postpone its primaries until August, which many Democrats blame for depriving candidates of adequate runway in their general election fights against Republicans.

Another key question for Empire State Democrats is whether and how their decisions will influence competitive Democratic primary races, including in solid blue seats. In New York’s 16th Congressional District, for example, Rep. Jamaal Bowman is trying to fend off a primary challenge from Westchester County Executive George Latimer. He stands to benefit from the reinstatement of Co-Op City, a predominantly Black neighborhood in the Bronx, to the district.

Adding Co-Op City to Bowman’s district might accomplish multiple goals for New York Democrats. Jeffries lamented in May 2022 that by diluting the Black population in some districts, the court-appointed special master’s map would “make Jim Crow blush.” Bowman’s district was illustrative: the Black share of the population in New York’s 16th went from about one-third prior to the redistricting in 2022 to 21% currently.

In addition, adding more of the Bronx to New York’s 16th might allow New York Democrats to transfer other liberal parts of the district northward to New York’s 17th Congressional District and improve the party’s chances of taking back that seat from Republican Rep. Mike Lawler.