Voters across the state will be casting their ballots in a November referendum that could make it easier for Democrats to redraw legislative and congressional district lines that favor their party.
Quickly moving forward in a month that is often slow in Albany, the state Senate and Assembly have approved a state constitutional amendment that gives Democrats more leverage when it comes time to redraw Congressional and legislative district lines next year.
Such a move could help them ensure a majority in both houses for the next decade. Democratic leaders reject any notion that they're trying to rig the game in their favor.
“No, we are trying to unrig the game. The game was rigged when they passed their bill 10 years ago, which said Republicans need a simple majority to pass redistricting. Democrats need a supermajority,” said State Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris.
Every 10 years after the federal Census, a process is created to redraw the lines. The Census maps are crucial in determining which legislators are protected with district lines drawn to favor their re-election. If New York loses one or two congressional seats, the process is especially crucial for incumbent members of the House.
The new process would allow Democrats to approve those lines with a simple majority, rather than a supermajority, or two thirds of the legislature.
“They are looking to lower the threshold to make sure that there is no impediment to ramming through a map that undoubtedly will end up being gerrymandered and will end up ensuring one-party rule and groupthink in the state of New York,” said Michael Lawler, a Republican assemblyman from Rockland County.
It’s never a perfect process, and partisanship has been known to rule the day. The last constitutional amendment to change it was passed in 2014, which means if it gets changed again this year, the current process will never have even been tested.
The League of Women Voters is one of the few good government groups in Albany to criticize what Democrats are trying to do.
"I don’t think it’s necessary to do a constitutional amendment at this point. We’ve never even seen this process play out," said Jennifer Wilson of the League of Women Voters. "And as many legislators have said, this was a process that was approved by the legislature and then again approved by the voters.”
This is the first time Democrats in the Senate have had control of redistricting. Republicans held the majority last time around. And according to top Democrats, they are simply trying to make it fairer than it was when Republicans set the rules.
“We are trying to permanently cap the number of state senators there are. Because in the past, they’ve manipulated the numbers, adding one when they wanted to gain an extra seat in certain parts of the state," said Gianaris. "We are limiting their ability to divide cities up, which was a tool they used to keep communities of color particularly from getting representation by dividing them into separate districts.”
A constitutional amendment requires passage by two separate legislative sessions. It has now passed both houses for the second time and goes to voters in November.
Governor Andrew Cuomo was instrumental in approving the process the last time around. Asked this week if he approves of the change Democrats are making, the governor declined to offer an opinion.