New York’s deadlocked redistricting process received a sharp jolt late last week when a group of concerned New Yorkers filed a federal lawsuit asking the courts to take control of the Empire State’s decennial redraw.
The suit requests that a three-judge panel appoint a special master to oversee legislative and Congressional redistricting in New York. The group, suing Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and state legislative leaders in their official capacities, warned of a “quagmire” and “impending electoral disaster” if redistricting were left up to the normal legislative process.
Cuomo has repeatedly vowed to veto any redistricting plan not drawn by a nonpartisan, independent commission, but the Legislature has so far not made any movement toward creating such a commission. Democrats control the state Assembly; Republicans control the state Senate.
“The system is out of time,” said Richard Mancino, the lead counsel for the plaintiffs. “The system is broken. It doesn’t seem likely that the system will correct itself, at least not when it’s being handled by very partisan people in Albany.”
The time for the process to take place is indeed limited, and redistricting is inextricably linked to the political calendar.
Mancino told Roll Call that with the primary season approaching, “it’s imperative that the citizens of New York, including [his] clients, know that there are districts that have been drawn in a fair and independent manner.”
Although there is no legal requirement to draw lines fairly or independently, the lines must be drawn. State and federal laws set specific time frames for candidate petitioning and federal primary processes, so New York is limited in how long it can go without new district lines that conform to the 2010 census numbers.
Once redistricting is complete, the Department of Justice must evaluate whether the new lines comply with the Voting Rights Act. That process can take up to 60 days, or longer if the DOJ objects to the map.
With lines in place and pre-cleared by the DOJ, the process of candidates petitioning to be a party nominee can begin. State law requires about five weeks for the signature-gathering and party-petitioning process. New York statutes require at least nine weeks after that process is complete before the primary may be held.
Further complicating the process, the state is limited in how late it can schedule the primary this cycle.
The Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act requires states to send ballots to members of the military stationed abroad no later than 45 days before a federal election, unless an exemption is granted to the state by the Department of Defense. On Wednesday, the DOD denied New York’s request for an exemption, so a September primary, the month when the state has historically held primaries, now appears out of the question.
The DOJ has asked a federal judge to rule that New York can hold its federal primaries no later than Aug. 18. A hearing has been set for December.
“Because of the change of the primary date, the likelihood of the courts drawing the district maps increases exponentially each day,” said Evan Stavisky, a plugged-in New York Democratic operative.
“New York’s entire political calendar is in a state of flux,” he added.
The state Senate is pushing legislation for an August primary date, while the Assembly put forth a bill for a June primary date. Both pieces of legislation remain stalled.
The lawsuit, Favors, et al. v. Cuomo, et al., filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court in Brooklyn, notes that a June primary would mean the candidate-petitioning and party-nominating process would begin in February.
The Empire State lost two Congressional seats in the reapportionment process.
Because of significant population loss in the western part of the state, Members who represent that region, such as Reps. Ann Marie Buerkle (R), Kathy Hochul (D), Brian Higgins (D) and Louise Slaughter (D), are considered particularly vulnerable to being drawn into a district with another Member. Rep. Bob Turner (R), who won an upset victory three months ago in the Queens- and Brooklyn-based 9th district, probably faces a similar threat.
But how a special master, if one were appointed, would draw lines remains opaque. Perhaps the only thing that is clear in the Empire State’s redistricting process is that the clock is ticking.