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New York's redistricting ballot measure draws mixed reviews 

For the second time in seven years, New Yorkers are being asked on the fall ballot to alter the state’s constitution to make changes to the redistricting process, which every 10 years draws new lines for congressional, Senate and Assembly districts.

The measure has mixed support from government reform groups.

In 2014, the last time a constitutional amendment was on the ballot to change redistricting, a 10-member commission of five Democrats and five Republicans was created to draw the lines. The two co-executive directors had to be from opposing parties.
A voter fills in his ballot during a previous year's election. - FILE PHOTO
  • FILE PHOTO
  • A voter fills in his ballot during a previous year's election.

That commission, now working on new district lines using 2020 census results, is currently deadlocked.

Democrats favor one set of maps, while GOP commissioners support a different plan. A supermajority, or two-thirds, of the Legislature can override the commission and create the new districts instead.

The proposed changes to that system, on this fall’s ballot, would eliminate the requirement that the co-executive directors be from different parties; the commissioners simply have to agree on who they want to lead them. And it would require just 60 percent of the Legislature, not two-thirds, to override the commission’s decisions.

Will it make the process better and more fair?

Susan Lerner with the reform group Common Cause said yes.

“It’s definitely going to reduce the ability of political parties to manipulate the map-making process for partisan gain,” Lerner said.

Lerner said it also caps the current size of the state Senate at 63 seats to further minimize gerrymandering. In the past, the Senate's size was expanded to help Republicans hold on to an increasingly slim majority.

But not all government reform groups agree. Citizens Union and the League of Women Voters say the proposition makes redistricting even worse.

The League’s Jennifer Wilson said the requirement that two-thirds of the Legislature approve the new maps should stay. She said it allows for more participation from the political party in the minority if the Senate and Assembly are closely divided.

Wilson said the 60 percent approval rule would actually strengthen the political party that is in power at the time of the vote. And she said the end result would be the Legislature gaining “total” power to decide the new districts.

“And that’s not really a great policy. We used to have our Legislature draw our state Assembly and state Senate maps,” Wilson said. “And we have very gerrymandered districts here in New York state.”

Republicans, who are in the minority in both houses of the Legislature, are also against the amendment. GOP Party Chair Nick Langworthy called it a power grab by Democrats.

“It would absolutely gut the independence of the independent redistricting commission,” Langworthy said. “They want to kneecap the commission in the middle of its work.”

The amendment would take effect in January and supersede the rules of the current redistricting process.

Lerner agreed that the amendment is not perfect, but she said some of the changes are needed now. The amendment also speeds up the timeline for drawing the maps to be ready in time for the new June primary date for statewide elections.

“Ultimately, what we’re going to need to do is to change the constitution to have true, independent, nonpartisan, citizen-led redistricting, and we’re going to keep working for that,” Lerner said. “But in the meantime, we can make the process better. And that’s what Prop 1 seeks to do.”

There are also four other ballot propositions, including changes to allow same-day voter registration and universal mail-in balloting, and an amendment to ensure New Yorkers the right to clean air and clean water.

Karen DeWitt covers Albany for WXXI News, a media partner of CITY.

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