New York’s highest court ruled on Wednesday that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when drawing new congressional and State Senate districts, ordering a court-appointed special master to draw replacement lines for this year’s critical midterm elections instead.
In a sweeping 32-page ruling, a divided New York State Court of Appeals chided Democrats for defying the will of voters who in 2014 adopted constitutional reforms, including a new outside commission, to curb political influence in the redistricting process. The judges additionally found that the congressional districts drawn by Democrats had violated an explicit state ban on partisan gerrymandering.
“Through the 2014 amendments, the people of this state adopted substantial redistricting reforms aimed at ensuring that the starting point for redistricting legislation would be district lines proffered by a bipartisan commission following significant public participation, thereby ensuring each political party and all interested persons a voice in the composition of those lines,” Chief Judge Janet DiFiore wrote for the four-judge majority.
The verdict, which is not subject to appeal, delivered a stinging defeat to Democrats in Albany and in Washington and cast this year’s election cycle into deep uncertainty. To accommodate the drawing of new districts, the Court of Appeals indicated that party primaries for the congressional and State Senate districts would have to be postponed from June until August.
The judges were silent on whether to move contests for governor and State Assembly seats, as well, but they noted in the majority opinion that New York had held bifurcated primaries before. Given the judges’ reasoning, the Assembly maps appear only to have survived because Republicans who brought the suit did not explicitly challenge them.
National Democrats had been counting on the maps that the State Legislature approved in February to pick up as many as three new seats this fall and offset redistricting gains by Republicans in states they control. With Democratic gains likely to be erased in New York, Republicans are on track to make modest gains nationally, easing their path to retaking control of the House of Representatives this fall.
The ruling makes New York the most prominent state so far this cycle to have a map stricken over partisan gerrymandering. Courts in Ohio, North Carolina and Alabama have all found instances of partisan or racial gerrymandering by Republicans so far, and the courts are widely expected to scrutinize new lines in Florida that overwhelmingly favor Republicans. And in Maryland, lawmakers were ordered to redraw an “extreme gerrymander” that favored Democrats.
The court’s findings could also undermine Democrats’ attempts to position themselves as the party of voting rights and could cast their attacks on Republican gerrymandering efforts as hypocritical.
The stricken congressional map, which was adopted by Democratic supermajorities in February, reconfigured three Republican districts into new Democrat-friendly seats on Long Island, Staten Island and in central New York, and eliminated a fourth Republican district upstate altogether. In total, the map would have given Democrats an advantage in 22 of New York’s 26 congressional districts, compared with 19 seats currently held by Democrats and eight by Republicans.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism