New York State’s Biggest Drawing Contest: Redistricting

The New York State Independent Redistricting Commission (NYSIRC) released two draft maps for the new Congressional, State Senate and State Assembly districts on Sept. 15. Yes, two maps.

New York State is no stranger to gerrymandering, the decennial process by which state legislatures redraw district lines for partisan purposes. It is currently one of nine states in the Union with an independent commission, the members of which are appointed by state legislators, responsible for redrawing the maps, according to Loyola Law School. The last period of redistricting, which occurred in 2010, featured a divided legislature with Republicans controlling the Senate, and Democrats the Assembly. Unsurprisingly, no compromise was reached between the parties, and the maps were ultimately redrawn in federal court and approved by then-Governor Andrew Cuomo, according to Loyola Law School. The NYSIRC was created via constitutional amendment after receiving a statewide approval from voters in November 2014.

I have been a resident of Cortland County in upstate New York for fifteen years, and it is a particularly rich example of gerrymandering’s unfortunate political outcomes. When the old district lines were approved in 2012, Cortland was divided into two separate Assembly districts. The 125th Assembly District encompasses half of the county, including the City of Cortland, while the 126th Assembly District claims ownership over the small towns and villages in the northern half of the county, according to Ballotpedia. Let us keep in mind that former President Donald Trump, a Republican, won Cortland County twice, including by fifteen points in 2016, according to New York State Board of Elections. Yet Anna Kelles, a Democrat, represents approximately 30,000 county residents, or 62% of the population, in the State Assembly according to CNY Regional Planning and Development Board. John Lemondes, Jr., a Republican, represents those 18,000 of us, including myself, who find ourselves within the lines of the 126th District. Indeed, the border between these two districts is only a five-minute drive from my house. On the one hand, the 125th District was drawn in such a manner to elect a Democrat in an otherwise conservative county, or at least half of it. By the same token, with the Democratic Party having controlled the State Assembly since 1992, those of us in the 126th District have not been represented within the lower legislative chamber’s majority conference since 2010, at minimum.  

This is to say nothing of our current State Senate Districts. Cortland County is one of nine different counties to be packed within the 51st District, which rivals Connecticut in its sheer geographic size according to NYS Senate. Of those nine counties, there are only three (Cortland, Otsego, and Schoharie) to entirely fit within the 51st District; the other six counties (Herkimer, Cayuga, Chenango, Tompkins, Delaware, and Ulster) are divided up and represented by two or more senators in the upper legislative chamber, according to the Ithaca Journal. Note that the residents of the 51st Senate District are currently represented by Peter Oberacker, a Republican, and thus have no representation within the Democratic Party’s trifecta (supermajorities in both legislative houses and control of the Governor’s Mansion). 

One might think that an independent commission, one where the majority and minority leaders in both legislative houses appoint five members to the commission for a total of ten, could find itself capable of redrawing districts in a manner that affords no clear advantage to either party. Unfortunately, however, both maps show that we have yet to reach that moment in New York State politics. 

The center of the conflict rests over the fact that New York State, having experienced a net population decrease between 2010 and 2020, will lose a congressional seat for the next decade. Its delegation in the House of Representatives will decline from 27 to 26, a cause for great concern for the Democratic Party as it seeks to maintain control of the chamber in the 2022 midterm elections, according to the New York Times.

Both plans have the same objective: place opposite-party incumbents into primary contests against each other by merging their districts. The Democratic plan, titled “Letters,” groups Syracuse and Utica, which are currently in separate districts, together; this would force Representatives John Katko and Claudia Tenney into a primary against each other, and a likely Democratic victory in 2022. The Republican plan, titled “Names,” would eliminate a seat from the Long Island region and force Democratic incumbents Kathleen Rice and Tom Suozzi into a contest; it also seeks alterations in districts around Brooklyn, according to City & State.

What are the implications for Colgate? The university, and Madison County as a whole, are currently located in Congressional District 22, represented by Ms. Tenney. If the Democratic plan is approved, which it is likely to be, then Colgate could be absorbed into a neighboring district represented by Congressman Antonio Delgado, a Democrat. On the other hand, Colgate may still fall within a Republican-heavy district, represented for the next two years either by Mr. Katko or Ms. Tenney.

The NYSIRC has scheduled fourteen in-person hearings at various locations throughout the state. The exact times and locations can be found on the NYSIRC website. If you, like me, are frustrated with partisan drawing contests, then I strongly urge you to attend one of these meetings. Particularly for those whose voices are unrepresented in the legislative body as a result, the costs of gerrymandering instigate polarization and instability in the framework of our constitutional republic. New York State must end this absurdity now.