N.Y. needs a transparent redistricting process



Within the next three weeks, New York’s so-called “Independent” Redistricting Commission (IRC) will once again deliver its proposal for redrawn congressional maps to the state Legislature. But what those maps will eventually look like is a mystery to the public. Why? Because the IRC is drawing those maps in the dark. They haven’t held a single public meeting. Not only is that not right, it does a major disservice to New Yorkers who live — and vote — in these districts.

But let’s rewind. How did we even get ourselves in this mess?

In New York, the redistricting process is run by a 10-person bipartisan state commission meant to reduce the influence of politicians but appointed by politicians anyway. Their mapmaking process is conducted with little public input or oversight, and requires approval by the very lawmakers whose political futures depend on the maps.

Once the commission’s maps are done, there’s nothing to stop the Legislature from throwing them out altogether and drawing their own — leaving voters confused and unsure whether they’re properly represented.

This entire process is broken, and it requires a long term fix. That’s why the Legislature must introduce a change that centers people — not politicians — and voters must be given the opportunity to approve a constitutional amendment that creates a truly independent, citizen-led redistricting commission with the power to actually decide the state’s political future.

It’s why, in 2014, we successfully sued the state Board of Elections to make clear to voters that there is nothing “independent” about the redistricting commission.

In the absence of real reform, the redistricting commission should do everything in its power to make its current process more transparent. A shortened mapmaking timeline is not sufficient reason to conduct the process in private, which means all meetings must be made public. The public should also have the opportunity to provide input to the commission, either by written testimony or hybrid hearings throughout the state that ensure the maps reflect the diversity of New York‘s population.

Failure to run a transparent process will only keep New Yorkers trapped in the same frustrating cycle that began when the commission deadlocked over partisan differences and failed to send maps to the Legislature in early 2022. The ensuing legal circus yielded multiple lawsuits, accusations of gerrymandering, and further doubt about the credibility of New York’s redistricting process.

That brings us back to December’s decision, where the Court of Appeals ruled the commission must propose new maps to the Legislature by Feb. 28. Now, voters again have no idea what their new congressional districts will look like with less than six months until they head to the polls.

We’re clearly desperate for a change. Thankfully, we don’t have to look far for examples of how citizen-led redistricting, which empowers everyday New Yorkers to lead the process instead of politicians, can make things better.

In Syracuse, the Common Council helped voters set up a redistricting commission composed of regular folks — whose only qualification is that they aren’t politicians, or don’t work for the city — to draw its legislative maps. And last year, for the first time, the Syracuse lawmakers adopted the city’s first citizen-drawn election maps free of political influence.

In California — long considered the gold standard for their redistricting approach — voters transferred the power of redistricting from state-appointed members to their fellow citizens. The commission follows a strict code that guides its map drawing process, and is composed of the most qualified Californians — not those with the best connections, or deference to their state’s politicians.

Albany already has a trust problem, and shady politicking only confirms voters’ belief that our state Capitol is rife with corruption and backroom dealings. The last thing our political system needs — and frankly, that it can afford more of — is to give voters a reason to distrust the people they elect. Enacting a last minute new map, forcing voters to wonder why their community’s representation is inexplicably divided, and scrambling candidates to primary each other for their best chance at reelection, is not in the best interest of voters.

If New York lawmakers want to ensure that the legal chaos of the last three years does not happen again, then they must commit to more transparency and push for a citizen-led redistricting process during this legislative session. Elected officials should not, and cannot, have a say in how district lines get drawn. And they certainly should not conduct such an important process behind closed doors. New Yorkers deserve to pick their elected officials, not the other way around.

Lerner is the executive director of Common Cause/NY. Lopez is the co-executive director of the New York Civic Engagement Table.



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