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District Drama: What Happens Now That Judge Has Tossed Albany-Drawn Political Maps?

A voting-rights activist protested near City Hall about proposed redistricting in Queens, Jan. 31, 2022. | Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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This article was originally published by The CITY on April 1

When the “independent” commission failed to come up with legislative maps everybody could agree on earlier this year, Democrats who control the Capitol took matters into their own hands. Republicans cried foul and an Upstate judge has agreed with them.

Who’s going to be your next representative in Albany or Washington? It depends what district you live in — and that … remains to be seen.

Ahead of November’s general election, New Yorkers are supposed to vote in party primaries on June 28. Because the city is so blue, few seats, either at the federal or state level, are genuinely up for grabs in the fall. The primary is when most electoral choices really get made.

But the process is now in limbo, thanks to a court decision on Thursday that tossed out the political district lines, collectively known as maps, New York lawmakers had approved earlier this year.

Those maps have already factored into some big political decisions.

For example, State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi had already launched a campaign for a newly drawn congressional seat that combined parts of her district in The Bronx and Westchester with Queens and Long Island. In Brooklyn and Staten Island, former Congress member Max Rose is running again for his old seat, which has been redrawn to include super-liberal Park Slope.

What now? There are a lot of variables. So, we talked to election law experts to sort out what New Yorkers should know about the redistricting chaos right now.

What happened to the political maps, and what’s next?

The maps at issue here were approved by the Democrat-controlled state legislature and Gov. Kathy Hochul on Feb. 3. Soon after, voters backed by state Republicans sued, claiming the maps were gerrymandered and, therefore, unconstitutional.

On Thursday, State Supreme Court Justice Patrick McAllister in Steuben County ruled in the GOP’s favor, saying that the map challengers had proven “beyond a reasonable doubt that the map was enacted with political bias.” (Reminder: in New York, the “Supreme Court” is the lowest legal tier for judges; the Court of Appeals is the highest.)

He ordered the legislature to draw up new maps by April 11.

The State Senate and Assembly have already filed paperwork to appeal, which triggers an automatic stay, or pause, of the judge’s decision.

That means the new maps just drawn by the legislature are still in effect until the next step in the appeals process.

Legal experts say the court’s Appellate Division, Fourth Department — which will hear the case next — is likely to pick this up as soon as possible, given the urgency of the matter.

“This would be a very high priority item for the Fourth Department,” said New York election attorney Sarah Steiner, who has represented local candidates from both parties, as well as independents.

Remind me: How did we get these maps in the first place?

Lawmakers in Albany had created new political boundaries for State Senate and Assembly districts, as well as Congressional seats, based on 2020 population figures from the U.S. Census Bureau. The process happens every 10 years in each of the 50 states.

This time, in New York, the process was supposed to be more fair, independent and less partisan. That was the goal, anyway, of a 2014 state constitutional amendment that created an Independent Redistricting Commission charged with creating maps in a bipartisan way.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins watch as Kathy Hochul is sworn in as governor, August 24, 2021. Kevin P. Coughlin/Office of the Governor

But the IRC published dueling maps split along partisan lines, then failed to come up with another set before the deadline set by the state constitution.

Eventually, the map-mapping fell back to the legislature after the ostensibly “independent” commission failed.

In early 2022, both state legislative houses created the maps we have today, and Governor Kathy Hochul signed them.

Aren’t candidates already running for the June primary? What happens to them?

Yes, lots of would-be candidates are in the middle of prepping to run for office in the same political boundaries that are being fought over in court.

For weeks, they’ve been petitioning to get on the ballot, a tedious process of gathering hundreds of signatures from voters, then submitting them to the state Board of Elections for approval.

Sen. Alessandra Biaggi is running for Congress in a district that is in limbo. Sept. 13, 2021. Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

According to the BOE’s political calendar, candidates have to submit those petition signatures between Monday, April 4 and Thursday, April 7.

For now, Steiner is advising her candidate clients to keep carrying on and submit their signatures as if the current maps will stick. That’s because the stay, or court pause, that came with the appeal of McAlluster’s ruling means the political calendar is still in effect, and petitioning goes forward — for the time being.

What’s the most likely outcome for the maps?

All of the experts we spoke with said the same thing: They think the most likely scenario is that McAllister’s ruling will be reversed by a higher court, and the latest maps and primary timeline will remain.

Jeff Wice, a New York Law School professor and veteran of two previous redistricting processes in New York, said the precedent of the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, is that they have “always deferred to the legislature and its judgment” on redistricting matters.

Attorney Jerry Goldfeder, director of Fordham Law School’s Voting Rights and Democracy Project and election lawyer with the Stroock firm, said the timing of the case doesn’t allow much room for changes before the June primary.

“The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that changes to election laws shouldn’t be done on the eve of an election,” he said.

Steiner emphasized that, if the courts mandate a map change, it would throw the election calendar into chaos — and any changes to the primary date, or process of getting on the ballot would have to come from the legislature, not the courts.

“Do you really see the legislature, all of whom have just gone through petitioning with its volunteer cost and time cost and money cost …. Do you really see them saying, ‘Oh, sure. Let’s do it again’?”’ she asked.

OK, but what if the maps do get thrown out?

The possibility remains that the higher courts — either the Appellate Department, or the Court of Appeals — sides with the Steuben County judge. From there, any number of things could happen, including that the court orders the legislature back to the drawing board.

If that comes to pass, political boundaries would change again and the many candidates who have flooded into races since the new maps emerged — or bowed out — would need to reconsider.

How the maps are drawn have national implications. New York’s district lines could have a big impact on whether Democrats keep control of the House of Representatives.

There is also the possibility that a third party, not the legislature, could be brought in by the courts to create new political lines.

For example, McAllister indicated in his decision that “if the legislature doesn’t produce the lines that he likes, he is going to appoint a special master to draw the lines,” said Goldfeder.

But it’s not clear if a State Supreme Court judge has the authority to do that.

“Whether one Supreme Court judge, quote, ‘likes’ or doesn’t like the lines is not the way this matter should be resolved,” Goldfeder said.

So, what is a voter — or would-be candidate — to do?

Stay patient, experts say.

Candidates should proceed with petitioning and campaigning as usual. And all voters can do is wait and see because “we just don’t know,” Wice said.

“It’s best to take this one day, and one step, at a time,” he said.

It might not hurt to read up on some candidates running in districts adjacent to yours, just in case.

Goldfeder hopes it’s all resolved sooner than later – before voters become even less engaged.

“The unintended consequence here is that voters become more disenchanted at the politics involved and not knowing who their representatives are going to be,” he said. “So, this really needs to be decided very quickly.”

THE CITY is an independent, nonprofit news outlet dedicated to hard-hitting reporting that serves the people of New York.

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