City & State: Shadow Play

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All the world’s a stage, and redistricting in New York is the main act

Sen. Martin Dilan was fidgeting throughout a recent meeting of the legislative task force on redistricting.

It was one of the last of the group’s dozens of public hearings before drafting new lines for election districts. Dilan, representing the Senate Democratic Conference on the task force, was upset about a memo from a Senate Republican lawyer that advocated for a 63rd Senate seat. The memo had been placed on the LATFOR website late on a Friday, with no Democratic input.

Dilan was not happy.

“We can see what the outcome is going to be here,” Dilan said, rigid with tension in a room filled with reporters and interested onlookers. “It will be the same one it has been for 50 years.”

Dilan was giving voice to a sneaking suspicion, rarely spoken on the record, that the official redistricting process in New York State is just a stage, and the politicians on it are merely players—that the legislators who signed on to former Mayor Ed Koch’s nonpartisan redistricting pledge were all talk and that Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s promise to veto any lines that aren’t drawn by an independent commission will somehow be circumvented.

“I believe that the hearings we have held are a farce and a waste of time and money,” Dilan said.

Democrats say Republicans are using two different formulas to get to the results they want to maintain their majority, while Senate Republicans say the process has nothing to do with partisanship and everything to do with math.

“We’re using the same methodology used in 2002…period,” Senate Republican spokesman Scott Reif wrote in an email.

Republicans note that Dilan’s outrage belies the fact the Senate Democrats did not pass a constitutional amendment or plan for independent redistricting during the two years they held the majority.

Now, good-government groups and redistricting lawyers say it is too late to form the independent commission reform advocates wanted. The lines need to be in place 80 days before the legislative election primary date, even though that date has yet to be decided. A federal judge is expected to rule on the date within weeks.

Despite all the hours Dilan and other members of LATFOR spent listening to legal experts and citizen groups describe the criteria for fair lines, there is every indication redistricting will end up in the same place it has for more than half a century.

“There is an increasing likelihood of the courts stepping in to draw a plan,” said Jeff Wice, a redistricting lawyer for the Senate Democrats.

Since the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1964, redistricting has grown increasingly divisive. Three different plans for lines were drawn in the years 1964–66, with elections in each of those years taking place under new districts, Wice said.

Redistricting discussions in 1992 and 2002 ended in failure, with lines ultimately being decided in both cases by a special master. In both decades, the special master was Frederick Lacey, a former prosecutor and federal judge.

But there are a few big differences in this year’s redistricting fight. One is Democrats’ hope that Cuomo will veto the lines, as he has repeatedly promised.

For more on the plans for redistricting, head to [City & State].  

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