A state constitutional amendment on changing redistricting rules, which has been quietly making its way through the Legislature for two years, will be on the ballot for all New York voters Nov. 2. These new rules give more redistricting power to a party with a majority in the Senate and Assembly, which is currently the Democratic Party.
The state is heading toward a once-a-decade redrawing of state and federal district lines in January 2022. This includes the districts for state Senate and Assembly, as well as the U.S. House of Representatives.
This constitutional amendment, supported by most state Legislature Democrats, would reduce the vote threshold needed for a one-party-led Legislature to approve plans submitted by the Independent Redistricting Commission from a two-thirds vote to a simple-majority vote, reversing portions of another constitutional amendment voters passed in 2014.
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In 2014 New Yorkers voted to approve a constitutional amendment establishing the Independent Redistricting Commission after a tense, partisan redistricting process following the 2010 census. This proposal was approved by 1,705,903 New York voters — or 57.67% of voters in that election.
The 10-member commission, made up of non-politicians chosen by Legislature leaders of both major parties, includes four chosen by Democrats, four chosen by Republicans and two chosen by the other eight.
They will draw redistricting maps, which must be approved by the Legislature. This form of an independent commission has never been used before, as redistricting occurs once every 10 years.
The 2014 amendment also limits the power of a party when it holds a simple majority in both chambers of the Legislature.
The amendment the Legislature just approved to appear on the ballot in November would, among other things, reverse that, allowing a party with a majority in both the Senate and Assembly — as the Democrats have now — to have more power over the redistricting process.
Redistricting is a contentious topic. Where district lines are drawn on a map can shift state power to one party or another, eliminate a district or make it harder for a political party to win specific districts by cutting or adding areas of the district that lean more toward a certain political party.
In 2014 when the constitutional amendment was approved, the Republicans controlled the Senate and the Democrats controlled the Assembly, meaning they had a majority of seats in their respective chambers. Now Democrats control both chambers.
The commission’s bipartisan makeup would remain the same under this amendment, but Democrats could have more power to reject and redraw maps.
Next year’s 10-member commission has already been chosen. Eight members are chosen by the majority and minority parties in the Senate and Assembly — two per party, per chamber. These members then choose two more commissioners who cannot be registered in the largest political parties — currently Republican and Democrat.
Members are Ivelisse Cuevas-Molina, Ross Brady, David Imamura, Jack Martins, Charles Nesbitt, Eugene Benger, George Winner, John Flateau, Elaine Fraizer and Keith Wofford.
The new amendment
Under the current rules, passed through the 2014 amendment, if the Assembly and Senate are controlled by different parties, the redistricting plan could be approved with a simple majority vote in both chambers. However, if one party controls both, as Democrats do now, the plan would need a two-thirds vote in both chambers for approval.
This proposed amendment would repeal that, making plan approval possible with a simple majority vote instead of a two-thirds vote, even when one party controls both chambers.
In any case, if the Legislature rejects two versions of the commission’s maps, it gains the right to draw up and pass maps of its own.
The proposal would also change the votes needed by the commission to send plans to the Legislature.
Currently with the 2014 rules, one appointee from each party in each chamber must vote yes if there is one-party rule. If each chamber is controlled by a different party, then only one appointee from the Assembly speaker and one from the opposite party need vote yes.
The proposed amendment would change it so seven of the 10 commissioners, with at least one opposite party appointee and one independent appointee, would be needed to move the plans forward.
In the new proposal, if the Legislature rejects two sets of plans with a simple majority vote, then the plan with the greatest approval in the commission would be sent to the Legislature, which can then pass it with a 60% vote instead of a two-thirds vote.
This gives the party in a two-chamber majority, the Democrats currently, an edge in passing plans that benefit their members.
If approved by voters, this amendment would make five other changes to the redistricting process.
It would count incarcerated individuals as residents of the last district they lived in before being imprisoned rather than as residents of the prison itself. State Assemblyman Billy Jones, D-Chateaugay Lake said the last few censuses have already done this, but this would codify it in state law.
It would require the state to count people who are residents of a district but not citizens — such as someone with a green card or an undocumented immigrant — if the federal census fails to do so. The administration of President Donald Trump tried to have the Census Bureau not count undocumented immigrants in 2020, which was blocked.
The proposal would remove the “block on border” and “town on border” rules from Senate district lines. These rules currently do not apply to the Assembly. The rules require that district lines that divide a city or county be placed where the population is equal on either side.
It would cap the maximum number of state senators at 63, the current number.
It would condense the timeline for redistricting. The redistricting process has been delayed this year because the U.S. census, which provides the data used in drawing new districts, was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If the amendment is approved, the commission would need to submit its redistricting plan to the Legislature by Jan. 1, 2022, instead of Jan. 15, and if that one is rejected, a second plan would need to be submitted by Jan. 15 instead of Feb. 28.
A constitutional amendment needs to be approved by the Assembly and Senate in two consecutive legislative sessions. It passed both houses last year and passed the Senate again Jan. 12. On Wednesday the amendment passed the Assembly for a second time.
The people of New York will have a say in whether this amendment is approved in the upcoming November election, when it will be included on the ballot.