ALBANY – Sixty-eight words in a ballot question for voters this fall could help seal Democrats’ registration advantage for the next decade in state congressional and legislative elections through a constitutional amendment that would change the how constituencies are drawn, according to analysts.
The proposal by the Democrats who now control the Senate and Assembly also nullifies some protections forced on the redistricting process by Republicans six years ago when they controlled the Senate.
Proposition 1 to the voters is the second proposal on the ballot since 2014 to deal with redistricting. That’s the process of redrawing constituency lines every 10 years based on US Census data.
Researchers have long said that redistricting is the basis of political power in state government and in the state congressional delegation because the ruling party in the Senate and Assembly has traditionally drawn its own lines, changing district boundaries to include stacking more members of your party to improve the prospects of winning an election. That limits competitive elections and helps extend incumbents’ time in office. The shape of some districts has been so deformed that they have been derisively described as the “Long Island Lobster Claw” or the “Long Island Alligator.”
Assembly District 13 was dubbed Lobster Claw by governance groups in 2014. The shape of the district in the northeast corner of Nassau County was approved by the Democratic majority in the Assembly. It includes Democratic areas of surrounding Glen Cove, Woodbury, and Jericho, as Talons, and excludes an open area of Republican neighborhoods in East Norwich and Upper Brookville.
Senate District 3 in Suffolk County, drawn up by the Republican majority in the Senate, was called Crocodile. The body is formed by connecting majority Republican communities from Shirley to Brentwood. But excluded from the district and in the open jaws of the “crocodile” is half of the Brentwood community, which split into two districts, thus reducing its influence at the polls.
Voters reading Proposition 1 this fall will see only a broad description of the proposal: “This proposed constitutional amendment would freeze the number of state senators at 63, amend the process for counting the state’s population, remove certain provisions that violate the Constitution of the states, repeal and amend certain requirements for the appointment of the executive deputy directors of the redistricting commission and amend the manner of drawing the district lines for the state legislative and congressional offices. Will the proposed amendment be approved ? “
But the legislation behind that question indicates what the specific impacts are:
Change the voting threshold
Currently, when the Senate and the Assembly are controlled by the same party, the constitution requires a two-thirds vote for the Legislature to adopt a redistricting plan if the Legislature rejects proposals from its designated redistricting commission. That was established in a 2014 constitutional amendment when Republicans controlled the Senate and Democrats controlled the Assembly. But the proposal to voters this fall would lower that threshold to 60% of the vote even if one party controls the Senate and Assembly, as Democrats do now. Since then, Democrats have reached a two-thirds majority in the full Legislature, but just barely. Only a few races in the next election could change that.
Protection for immigrants, prisoners
This fall’s proposal would also provide constitutional protection to count immigrants in the country illegally as residents when drawing new electoral districts and to make sure prisoners are counted as residents of their last neighborhood, not their prison. Currently, the Census already counts immigrants in the country illegally, but former President Donald Trump tried unsuccessfully to change that. This proposal would prevent the federal government from excluding them from New York’s count in the future. On the subject of prisoners, a recent New York law, passed by Democrats, already counts them for redistricting purposes from their last home, not from their prison address. The proposal would give this measure the substantial force of the state constitution and make change difficult in Washington or Albany.
Freeze the number of seats in the Senate
The number of Senate seats would be frozen at 63. That would remove a tool that the Republican majority at the time wielded in 2012 when they added a 63 seat to the Senate and placed it in a Republican stronghold in western New York to bolster its meager most.
“Republicans are effectively excluded from the process in any way, whether the amendment passes or not,” said Shawn J. Donahue, a political science professor who studies redistricting at the University at Buffalo. “The proposed amendment makes it much easier for Democrats to adopt maps that benefit themselves. With large legislative majorities, there is little incentive for Democrats on the committee to cooperate with Republicans as they disagree with maps give Democrats exclusive power to redistrict. ” “
This year, redistricting will take place under a single-party controlled state government for the first time since the 1970s and during a deepening partisan divide in Albany. New district lines are scheduled to be adopted next year before state, legislative and congressional elections.
“Like everything else under Democratic control in New York, this process is a political sham built on a foundation of lies and hypocrisy,” said Republican State President Nick Langworthy. “They are going to hinder and prolong this process in the hope that New Yorkers will not pay attention so that partisan legislators can draw their own maps. We intend to use every legal and political tool in our arsenal to stop them.”
Democrats say they are trying to remove a partisan bias that Republicans enacted in the constitutional amendment passed in 2014.
“It’s quite comical that the party that made vote rigging and suppression part of its platform is giving advice on redistricting,” said Mike Murphy, communications director for the Senate Majority Democrat. “This amendment will improve the redistricting process, increase transparency, and help ensure that New York leads the nation in establishing fair and impartial lines for state and federal candidates for the next decade. We believe voters should have the power to elect their representatives; unfortunately, Republicans have always felt that they should be allowed to elect their voters. “
Democrats have a more than 2: 1 registration advantage over Republicans statewide, and last year, for the first time, the number of voters who chose not to register for any party surpassed the Republican Party’s registration in New York. .
Attempts to make redistricting independent of political control so that New Yorkers benefit from more competitive elections have been thwarted by “the hyperpartisan nature of the process,” said Gerald Benjamin, retired professor of political science at State University. of New York in New Paltz, who has long studied state government.
“A false reform disguised as reform is the worst possible outcome, as it allows you to take credit for change without results,” Benjamin said. “It was not meant to work and it is not working … there is no compromise on a bipartisan or nonpartisan basis.”
The proposal does not address the basic changes necessary for redistricting, said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
“The entire redistricting system should be run by professional, nonpartisan administrators whose only claim to fame is knowing how to do it right,” Horner said. The State Legislature has modified the redistricting system many times and created what lawmakers call an independent redistricting commission. But legislative leaders appoint members of the commission, and if the Legislature rejects the commission’s recommendations, majority conferences of the Legislature can still redraw their own lines.
“It’s not really independent,” Horner said.
Still, NYPIRG and governance groups Common Cause-NY and Reinvent Albany support Proposition 1. Horner argues that the Legislature has so far shown no interest in creating a truly nonpartisan process, so smaller improvements, such as ensure prisoners are counted at their last home address is worth passing.
“While the resolution generally improves the redistricting process established in 2014,” good governance advocates said in a statement, “it could be significantly strengthened with the reforms necessary to ensure fair and independent redistricting.”
Horner said advocates don’t discuss Republican concerns, “but at the end of the day, whether there are Democratic or Republican supermajorities is up to the voters.”
Not all advocates agree.
“While we support the clauses on undocumented immigrants and the counting of prisoners in their homes, we believe that diminishing the influence of the minority party in the redistricting process is reason enough to reject this proposal,” said Laura Ladd Bierman, executive director. of the League of Women Voters.