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Complications compound struggle to redraw New York’s political battle lines

Updated: May. 19, 2021 at 4:22 PM EDT
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WASHINGTON (Gray DC) - New York is in the early stages of a months-long scramble to redraw its political battle lines. How the map unfolds could dictate how the state, and country, are governed.

New York and its 20.2 million residents will forfeit a U.S. House seat in 2023, after the Census count left it just 89 people short of keeping its full voice in Congress.

It’s up to an independent bipartisan commission -- at least initially -- to redraw boundaries into 26 districts representing 777,000 New Yorkers. That process is already behind schedule.

“It’s never too early to start, at some point, it’s too late to catch up,” said New York Law School Adjunct Professor and Sr. Fellow Jeff Wice of the timing challenges facing the state.

But even Wice, a veteran of four redistricting cycles in New York, doesn’t fully know what to expect as the Empire State charts a course through a new political mapmaking process.

Among the new twists this decade:

- Ten political appointees, not lawmakers, get first crack at drawing the maps

- Next year’s primary races moved up in the calendar, from September to June

- Census data is lagging months behind. Key details aren’t expected until mid-August. The commission cannot count on receiving the full catalogue until end of September. By that time, they’re already supposed to have a map ready for the public to examine.

“The line drawing really needs to be finalized by the end of January next year,” Wice noted.

That may sound like a lot of time, but it’s not easy drawing lines that meet federal requirements for fairness to people, politicians and parties. And, the public is legally entitled to weigh in at hearings across the state.

“I think there’s reason to be worried,” said the State Assembly’s Republican Minority Leader, Rep. Will Barclay. Tight deadlines, are not his only concern; politics may be the biggest potential problem.

The commission still can’t access its funding, or agree on a chairman, never mind a map.

Lawmakers or the governor can shoot down whatever the commission does ultimately produce. If either sends the commission back to the drawing board, and a second version also fails to get the political support it needs, control of the process would fall to the Democratic majority.

Barclay said he hopes it won’t come to that, “but I’m also a realist and understand politics usually plays a role in everything we do.”

“Redistricting, as in most things that happen in government, is a zero sum game,” Wice said, “there are winners and losers.”

Asked whether partisanship should play any role in the process, Wice said politics is not a poison pill. But, he added that recent history in other states offers examples of both parties overreaching in trying bake an advantage into their maps.

Wice said it’s too early to even hazard a guess as to how a given district will shift. “I often say, ‘those people who think they have the answers now are the farthest removed from the process, know the least about it’.”

Some, like Barclay, would like to see the U.S. Rep. Tom Reed’s 23rd district absorb as much of the change as possible. The Republican is planning on retiring after this term.

Others have suggested Democrats, if they take control of the process, may consider adding reliably blue areas to Rep. Elise Stefanik’s 21st district. The 36-year-old just became the GOP Conference Chairwoman in the U.S. House. A more liberal district might mean a more competitive race in 2022.

Voters could decide to tweak the map-drawing process this November.

Among other changes, the proposed amendment would speed up the redistricting timeline and make it easier for lawmakers to sign off on a new map.

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