NY Primaries in Disarray After Top Court Orders Redistricting Redo

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A view of the New York State Court of Appeals building is seen in Albany, New York October 12, 2011.
REUTERS/Hans Pennink

New York State’s top court upended the 2022 primary election calendar in an April 27 ruling that threw out the new congressional and state Senate district lines that Democratic lawmakers recently approved.

The decision by the state Court of Appeals — made up entirely of judges appointed by Democratic administrations — handed a victory to Republicans who argued in a lawsuit that Democrats who control the state Legislature unconstitutionally gerrymandered the new district maps in a partisan ploy to combat what political observers expect will be another red wave of GOP electoral victories in November. 

“The enactment of the congressional and Senate maps by the Legislature was procedurally unconstitutional,” the justices ruled in a 4-3 decision. “And the congressional map is also substantively unconstitutional as drawn with impermissible partisan purpose, leaving the state without constitutional district lines for use in the 2022 primary and general elections.”

The court reasoned that Democratic leaders in Albany lacked the authority to redraw congressional and state Senate maps after the state Independent Redistricting Commission charged with crafting new maps failed to reach a consensus. The judges also said lawmakers violated a 2014 constitutional amendment designed to rout out political gamesmanship in redistricting.

The decision came four weeks after candidates had filed nominating petitions to get on ballots and six weeks before early voting was scheduled to start in the primaries slated for June 28. As of press time, the state Board of Elections appeared likely to keep the June 28 primary date for statewide races such as the governor’s seat and for the state Assembly primaries, since the new lines in that chamber were not a part of the lawsuit. The court suggested congressional and state senatorial primaries may be bumped two months to August.

Two lower-level courts had previously ruled the maps were unconstitutional and gave the Legislature an April 30 deadline to draw new maps or else leave the task to a court-appointed expert. That deadline has now been set aside. In the meantime, candidates have already begun campaigning in the new districts, despite being unsure whether those districts will still exist by the time voting begins. Those candidates, experts say, will have to wait for the new district lines to be drawn and start from scratch.

The Appeals Court handed authority to draw new district maps to an expert, known as a special court master — Carnegie Mellon University fellow Jonathan Cervas — instead of the Legislature. In a statement, a spokesperson for the Democratic state Senate majority said Democrats disagreed with the court and would make their case to the special master. The court ordered the new maps be ready by May 20.

“We look forward to a special master producing fair, independent maps for the people of New York,” said state Senate Republican Leader Rob Ortt (R-Lockport).

The decision is a blow to Democrats’ chances of maintaining a majority in Congress. Republicans are widely seen as favored to flip the minimum five seats they need nationwide to capture a U.S. House of Representatives majority in this fall’s congressional elections, enabling them to block much of Democratic President Joe Biden’s agenda for the remaining two years of his first term. Democrats had hoped the aggressive New York map would offset Republican gains in states such as Texas and Florida, where Republican-controlled legislatures approved their own partisan maps as part of the once-a-decade redistricting process that follows the decennial U.S. Census.

Because of new population data from the 2020 census, New York is set to lose one seat in Congress in 2021. The maps devised by the Legislature would have given Democrats a strong majority of registered voters in 22 of the state’s 26 congressional districts. Right now, Republicans currently hold eight of the state’s 27 seats. The New York plan would have ousted half of them.

“While we are disappointed with the court’s ruling, we remain confident in Democratic victories up and down the ballot this November,” said Jay Jacobs, the chairman of the Democratic Party’s state and Nassau County committees. 

Jeffrey Wice, a New York Law School Professor and redistricting expert from Long Beach, said this decision broke with long-standing precedents giving the legislature a chance to redraw the lines itself before handing the process over to the courts.

“This is a major, major precedent breaker in that not only did the the court invalidate a legislative redistricting plan, but it sent the plan back to the trial judge to redraw the congressional and state Senate lines, bypassing and shutting the legislature out of the process,” Wice told PoliticsNY. “They did that primarily because of the lack of time to hold a new primary this year, but courts usually give the legislature a chance to remedy a legal violation. And here, they’re giving the court the complete responsibility in redrawing the plan.”

U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley), the GOP gubernatorial nominee facing several primary challenges in his bid to unseat Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, this fall, cheered the decision.

Zeldin tweeted: “This is excellent news for the people of New York and yet another big-time defeat for Kathy Hochul and her Democrat allies.”

-With Associated Press, Reuters, Ben Brachfeld and Ethan Stark-Miller

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