New York State’s Redistricting Mess

Listen to this episode

Speaker 1: Hey, can you hear me?

Mary Harris: I called up Cook political reporter Dave Wasserman because I needed a guide, someone who could explain to me what just happened to New York State’s congressional delegation. Dave, how would you describe New York’s redistricting process this year?

Speaker 1: Chaotic.

Mary Harris: For the past few weeks, New York’s Democrats, people who represent me, have been getting increasingly anxious as they await finalized congressional maps. These maps were supposed to be settled on months ago, but an independent commission couldn’t agree on them. The Democratic state legislature drew their own maps, but those got challenged in court. Finally, a judge threw all these maps out and had an independent special master start from scratch. What he came up with, it has not made the Democrats very happy. When my congressman got really upset about the back and forth over these congressional maps, he made these digital ads where it was kind of interesting, he said. They have drawn congressional maps that are unfair. But don’t the Democrats control just about every lever of power in the state of New York?

Advertisement

Speaker 1: Well, except as it turns out, the Court of Appeals, which is the top court in the state, they were hoping to offset what Republicans were doing in Texas and Ohio and Florida and elsewhere by passing a maximally aggressive map that would have given them 22 out of 26 seats in the state. Now, you know, is that a fair reflection of New York’s politics? No, it is an inflation of Democrats advantage in the state. But Democrats would argue, you know, hey, even though we’re manipulating the boundaries, we’re offsetting what Republicans are doing elsewhere. And it’s our duty to fight fire with fire.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: And the GOP did at first.

Advertisement

Speaker 1: Right. Although, look, you can play this chicken and egg game back decades.

Mary Harris: Some Democrats are calling these new maps racist. Others are worrying that the way they’re drawn means Republicans have an even better chance of taking over Congress next year. But, Dave, he looks at these maps and sees something different. He sees Democrats struggling to figure out their next move, squirming as they adjust to the political rules of the road.

Mary Harris: Is this the biggest like mess up of congressional maps that you’ve seen in your career? It seems pretty major to me.

Speaker 1: No. I think that award goes to Arizona in 2010 when the the redistricting commission chair was impeached and there were threats on her life.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: So we can get worse?

Speaker 1: Yeah, it can get worse. But this cycle, we’ve seen a lot of untested reforms that no one really knew how they were going to play out. And in the case of New York, I don’t think Democrats in the legislature did.

Mary Harris: Today on the show, how New York’s maps and maps and a lot of other states, too, became such a mess. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to What next? Stick around. So can you just tell me how the story of redistricting this year in New York started? Like this started with a bipartisan group that was tasked with redrawing district lines and they got stuck. What what went on here?

Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 1: Well, I never took it seriously, to be honest, because, look, the redistricting commission was made up of five Democrats and five Republicans. But unlike other states with functional commissions, this one didn’t have any independent component or tie breaking component. Even New Jersey has a 13th commissioner who breaks the tie between the parties. And in this case, there was never any prospect for bipartisan agreement because there was no incentive for either side to come to the table and negotiate. And Democrats all along knew that if the commission failed, the legislature would draw the map.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: It seemed to me it was kind of the plan from the beginning, like these guys are going to get stuck, legislature will swoop in, will draw the map we like, and that’ll be it 100%. The legislature’s plan was to draw maps that kept incumbents safe and waved away a few Republican strongholds when their work was done. Democrats were slated to gain a couple of seats. Combining those pickups with seats in other states offered a little glimmer of hope that Democrats could hold on to Congress in November. There was just one problem Republicans, they sued and the state’s constitution was on their side.

Advertisement

Speaker 1: The language in the reform in the New York Constitution is pretty clear that maps cannot give one party or incumbents an undue advantage. It’s basically the same type of language that is in the Constitution as a result of reforms in Ohio and Florida. But New York’s top court. These are these are not simply political lackeys. Many of the judges on the court of appeals are very accomplished legal professionals who take these matters very seriously. And in a narrow majority, they affirmed the lower court’s findings and said, yes, this pretty plainly violates the state constitution.

Mary Harris: So the Court of Appeals appointed a special master to draw new district lines. So we’ve had, you know, this independent commission did their maps and then we have the legislature do their maps. And now we have this third entity, the special master, come in. What did this guy’s maps look like? And was even a New Yorker?

Advertisement

Speaker 1: No. He’s a post-doctoral fellow at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh. Now, it’s not uncommon for a court to bring someone in from out of state. And in this case, Jonathan Service, who drew the remedial plan, drafted a plan that minimized county splits. On balance, I’d say it was slightly friendlier to Democrats than what I was expecting, but about three seats less friendly to Democrats than the gerrymander the legislature drew.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: So the Democrats in their minds, lost three seats in this year when they really feel like the House is like on this precipice, they could lose it.

Speaker 1: Yeah. And keep in mind, who’s from New York? Right. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chair of the D, triple C and Hakeem Jeffries, who is widely anticipated to be Nancy Pelosi’s successor as leader of the party someday. And, of course, they were under heavy pressure to deliver as many seats from New York as possible for their Democratic colleagues.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: So this looks bad for them.

Speaker 1: This looks really bad, no doubt.

Mary Harris: You know, the judge who had appointed the special master when he released the finalized maps last week, he characterized them as almost perfectly neutral. Would you characterize them that way as well?

Speaker 1: You know, I’d say they’re pretty close to neutral in this case. I think the special master made some choices that create highly competitive districts. And this map, I’d say, will be fairly responsive to voters changing moods over the course of the next decade. You have some districts that are in the high single digits for Biden. You have some districts that are in the low single digits, some that are narrowly for Trump.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: But if I’m an incumbent, I don’t really want my district to be responsive to changing moods. Of course, I want the mood to be me all the time.

Speaker 1: Well, welcome to what Democrats, Drew.

Mary Harris: Hmm. Did New York Democrats in some ways do this to themselves? Like I’m thinking back to their independent redistricting commission, which, as you said, was set up to come to a gridlock. It didn’t have anyone who was a tie breaker on there if they’d just put in place that one. Element. Could it have saved them? A whole lot of heartbreak here.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 1: They didn’t want to. They didn’t want to take their chances on a commission that would pass neutral or a Republican leaning map. This was designed to fail. And keep in mind that Democrats even tried to pass a second constitutional amendment in 2021 that would have reined in the commission’s timeline and lowered the threshold for the legislature to override it.

Advertisement

Mary Harris: But this just underlines my point that maybe they just flew too close to the sun here.

Speaker 1: I mean, the only thing I can think of that would have allowed Democrats to keep their map was for Andrew Cuomo or Kathy Hochul to appoint more party line stooges to the Court of Appeals.

Mary Harris: When we come back, how what’s happening in New York is playing out in different ways all across the country. There are layers to how problematic New York’s congressional maps are. If you’re a Democrat, there’s the national problem. Losing a couple of seats in this very blue state means the Dems are going to have to fight harder if they want to remain in power in Washington. But then there’s the way these new maps have turned the party against itself. Longtime incumbents Jerry Nadler and Carolyn Maloney. They got drawn into the same Manhattan district. They’re going to have to compete against each other. Hunger Games style. So many black incumbents find themselves in this kind of situation that Representative Hakeem Jeffries has called these maps racist.

Advertisement

Speaker 3: Well, in 2020, we brought our chairs, thousands of them, and elected the most black candidates to Congress in New York state history. So now they’re trying to move the table. Drawing a congressional map that robs us of power and takes a sledgehammer to black districts. It’s enough to make Jim Crow blush.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Dave Wasserman sees it a little differently.

Speaker 1: Look, this is what happens every ten years. And the fact of the matter is, we have enough turnover in Congress that most members of Congress are pretty surprised when redistricting unfolds and all of a sudden they have to start working for reelection. This is happening all over the country. We have we have seven incumbent first incumbent situations now, including Maloney versus Nadler. You know, Democrats obviously upset because going for broke in redistricting was a necessary precondition for them to have any path to holding the House. And that hasn’t happened.

Speaker 1: Now that courts have overturned this map, but also this has been a pretty poor redistricting cycle for minority voting rights across the country. And in Alabama, for example, where there was a push for a second African-American district and the US Supreme Court essentially put the kibosh on that. And a similar situation is unfolding in Florida, where the only black district in north Florida that’s existed for 30 years may be dismantled by Governor Ron DeSantis. But I would not call what’s happened in New York a minority vote dilution situation despite what Congressman Jeffries is alleging. You will still have too strongly black districts in Brooklyn under this plan, which is no change from the current plan, even though New York’s losing one seat.

Mary Harris: It strikes me it’s really an incumbent dilution plan. It just doesn’t it doesn’t favor the people who’ve already been there.

Speaker 1: Yeah, look, Democrats are pointing to racial reasons as as a reason they don’t like a map, when, in fact, the real situation here is incumbents and kind of turf wars between them.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: One of these turf wars played out between the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, Sean Patrick Maloney, and a first term incumbent, Mondaire Jones. When the maps got released, Maloney made a snap decision to hop into Jones’s district, leaving the freshman representative to choose Do I run against the guy in charge of the Democratic warchest or switch districts myself?

Speaker 1: But rather than putting his money where his mouth is and running in the slightly harder district, Sean Patrick Maloney is abandoning it, even though he says he is only shifting districts because of where his home is. I’m the only sitting member who lives in the district which is now numbered New York 17. From my point of view, I’m just running where they where I landed. Okay. But maybe you could have waited more than 25 minutes to announce that you had Sean Patrick Maloney staking his claim within minutes of the initial special master plan coming out. But 75% of which was actually Mondaire Jones, his district, and Mondaire Jones and Jamaal Bowman, as you know, two black freshmen who are quite progressive would have had to face off under that plan. And ultimately, Jones is running in a district that he represents none of. He’s running in the open 10th District, which solves a lot of problems, but really saves Maloney’s bacon.

Mary Harris: Yeah. And I think that it was notable that Maloney switched districts, partially because, first of all, you don’t have to live in your district to run in New York. But also, he’s the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. His whole job is getting people reelected. So for him to kind of go into someone else’s district without telling them first was aggressive.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 1: Well, yeah. And there are really no hard and fast rules here. So I can understand why Maloney announced where he did. But this has created a lot of internal consternation. And I think the best news for Maloney in all of this, besides that he doesn’t have to face another incumbent, is that this nightmare could be over in six months and then the clock is running out on the 2022 cycle.

Mary Harris: This doesn’t look good for Democrats. Now, like if I’m looking at what just played out, it looks like a mess. And I don’t know how they get away from that.

Speaker 1: Well, they’re going to have to live with it for ten years, at least. And the fact of the matter is, this map makes both parties work for seats. That is pretty different from what we see in other states. There are five districts out of 26 on this map that I would say are highly competitive seats. And just to give you an idea of every state in the country had that same level, then we’d have 84 highly competitive districts in the House, and instead we’re on track for 36.

Mary Harris: And there’s something else. New York isn’t an outlier for Democrats. It’s indicative of a broader trend. Dave says it’s now clear blue states can’t play by red state rules.

Speaker 1: At the end of February, Democrats looked like they were doing great and they started popping the champagne a little bit too early because then in March, things turned. Now, Democrats had gotten some great state court rulings in Pennsylvania and North Carolina overturning Republican gerrymanders. They did well with other commission states like New Jersey and California. They more or less got the maps they wanted in Michigan. But then in March, state courts overturned their gerrymander in Maryland. And then in Florida, obviously, Governor DeSantis overpowering his own legislature to impose a map that could give Republicans 71% of the seats in that state.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Speaker 1: That was a shift from our priors and then obviously what happened in New York. So you take the four or five seat gain that Democrats were expecting from redistricting back at the end of February. And now it looks more like a 3 to 4 seat gain for Republicans, and that’s before even factoring the political environment, which looks downright catastrophic for Democrats.

Mary Harris: I mean, you’ve really pointed to how crucial the courts were in this. You’ve pointed out that, you know, basically because of how the courts have ruled in response to Democratic maps, it’s possible to brazenly gerrymander in some states like red states, but not others, mostly blue. And I think that’s a really important distinction.

Speaker 1: Right.

Mary Harris: Because you look at, for instance, what this judge said about New York’s maps and he says, you know, the court isn’t politically biased here, which may be true, but if the court is not politically biased only in one kind of state, it makes things much more complicated.

Speaker 1: And look, the main takeaway from this cycle is in the absence of. The US Supreme Court or Congress stepping up to put up a standard or guardrails against gerrymandering. You’re going to see the value of people’s votes vary wildly from state to state, depending on the process for drawing these lines. We’ve got some states that are sending brutally gerrymandered delegations to Congress. Texas, for example, will likely send a 25 to 13 Republican breakdown. But what’s striking about that map, only one out of the 38 seats is remotely competitive this cycle. So it’s it’s really quite different from California or New York where, you know, you might have five or six competitive races.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: You know, for a couple of decades, the rap on Republicans has been that they’re just better at playing the redistricting game at every level. Is that what you see this year?

Speaker 1: Look, I think the parties are playing by two different sets of rules. Right. And Republicans justify their gerrymanders by pointing to the fact that Democrats are more clustered geographically than Republicans. Democrats tend to live in more 80 or 90% blue precincts, whereas Republicans tend to live in 60 to 70% red precincts. And what that means is that in most states, it’s much easier to draw a clean looking Republican gerrymander than a clean looking Democratic gerrymander.

Speaker 1: Democrats have to break up cities, and they have to draw some very mangled boundaries to be able to spread out their voters and their advantage. And when you present maps to a court, judges are are struggling to identify what’s a gerrymander. Mathematically, many of them inspect gerrymanders visually and say this just doesn’t pass the smell test. And so Republicans, yes, I think they’ve gotten their judges in their states to be more on board with aggressive plans, whereas Democratic judges we’ve seen in Maryland and New York are trying to adhere to the letter of the law. And what that means overall is an imbalanced house map.

Speaker 1: You know, I’ve been covering House races for the past 15 years professionally, and when I started these contests were still battles between two differing candidates of differing backgrounds and qualifications and making arguments to voters. Now, what I see more or less is censuses of how many Democrats or Republicans live within a certain preordained set of boundaries. And yes, it does shift depending on whether it’s a red or blue year. But candidates don’t matter as much as they used to, particularly when so many of these election outcomes are are written into the destiny because of redistricting.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Mary Harris: Hoof. Dave Wasserman. I’m really grateful for your time. Thanks for joining me.

Speaker 1: All right. Thanks for having me.

Mary Harris: Dave Wasserman is the U.S. House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson Carmel Delshad and Alex Schwartz. We’re getting a ton of help these days from Sam Kim and Anna Rubanova. We are led by Alicia montgomery and Joanne Levine. And I’m Mary Harris. I will be back in this feed bright and early tomorrow. Catch you then.