New York state lawmakers vote down bipartisan House map plan

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Ruling Democrats in the New York State Legislature voted down a proposal from a bipartisan panel to slightly modify the state’s House map, seizing control of the process and potentially setting themselves up to draw a map that would boost their own party in the fall elections.

The rejection of the bipartisan proposal came 11 days after the Independent Redistricting Commission, spurred by a court order, delivered lawmakers a proposal that would largely leave the current congressional map intact but might modestly advantage upstate Democrats.

The decision by Democratic lawmakers to buck the bipartisan compromise appeared to represent a major gamble. It could set up a court battle with Republicans that would test the willingness of the judicial system to back what critics see as partisan Democratic hijinks aimed at hampering electoral competition.

If successful, the Democrats could draw a map that would cause a last-minute scrambling of House districts from Long Island to Lake Erie, hamper Republicans’ congressional candidates’ chances in key swing districts and deliver a dose of chaos to New York politics.

Voters could find themselves drawn into new districts, and candidates for Congress could be pushed to shift their campaign season plans. In the midterms, a revised map shoved two long-time representatives into a brawl for a single seat in upper Manhattan.

In the city, Democrats might be tempted to twist lines to make it harder for Rep. Nicole Malliotakis to win reelection by combining liberal sections of Brooklyn with her Staten Island district. Democrats might also consider shifting lines on Long Island and in the Hudson Valley.

But the scale of Democrats’ ambitions was not immediately clear.

Monday’s move seemed likely to set up another high-stakes legal battle between the two parties. The national Democratic party has focused on New York’s swing seats as possible pickups after the GOP flipped four districts in the midterms.

State Sen. Michael Gianaris, the deputy majority leader and a key player in the redistricting process, told reporters that there are “plenty of defects” in the Independent Redistricting Commission’s map, suggesting it would have diluted the votes of so-called communities of interest that are made up of common characteristics such as ethnicity.

He insisted Democrats would not draw a map to help their own party. “We’re prohibited from doing that,” said Gianaris, a progressive Queens Democrat.

The state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, recently sided once with Democrats, accepting their case that the Independent Redistricting Commission should get another crack at crafting the map after it deadlocked in 2022 during a once-a-decade redistricting process.

In 2022, the failure of the commission set off a chaotic process in which Democrats designed a map to their clear advantage, before the Court of Appeals ruled 4 to 3 that their map was unlawfully partisan. An independent expert in Pennsylvania drew different lines, which were used in the midterms and remain the controlling borders for New York’s House delegation.

But the Court of Appeals was shaken up after the 2022 ruling, with Gov. Hochul, a Democrat, appointing a new liberal judge. The court then decided, in a 4-to-3 December decision, to reopen the process and return it to the Independent Redistricting Commission.

But in a sometimes defensive majority opinion, Chief Judge Rowan Wilson insisted that the court’s decision was not inconsistent with its map finding the previous year, when he had been in the minority.

“We are holding the IRC and legislature to what the Constitution demands and will do so as often as necessary to secure compliance with its mandate,” he wrote.

Hochul’s most recent appointee, Caitlin Halligan, recused herself from the case and Dianne Renwick, an appellate division judge in Manhattan, stepped in and offered the decisive vote in the Democrats’ favor.

A dissenter, Judge Anthony Cannataro, a Westchester County Democrat, wrote that the court had reached its result for “one reason and one reason only: because the composition of this Court has changed.”

Some expected the Independent Redistricting Commission to deadlock again, possibly offering Democratic lawmakers cover to draw a new map. But the commission voted 9 to 1 to authorize a compromise, putting Democrats in a pickle. Into Monday, it was unclear if the party might wave a white flag and accept the compromise.

The GOP urged the adoption of the compromise. But instead, the Democrats who control both chambers of the state Legislature chose to spike the bipartisan map.

The Republican minority leader in the state Senate, Rob Ortt, said in a Monday statement that “Albany Democrats are once again poised to create their own gerrymandered maps in another shameful power grab.”

If the Democratic majority in the Legislature redraws the House map to their own party’s advantage in a way that is viewed as obviously partisan, the liberal majority on the Court of Appeals may be uncomfortable rubber-stamping it.

Gianaris said members of the state Senate and the Assembly had not reached an agreement on a replacement map plan. The clock is ticking: the primary is scheduled for June.

On Monday, the Senate rejected the bipartisan plan by a vote of 40 to 17. The Assembly voted it down 99 to 47.