Voters across New York will decide this fall whether to take some of the few teeth out of a new system designed to make redistricting of the nation's fourth largest state a bit less partisan.
The ballot measure was quietly given final approval last week by a Democratic-controlled Legislature voting almost entirely along party lines, the first victory this year by politicians out to make the most of their mapmaking powers.
The vote reminds democracy reformers they made only marginal gains in their bid to curtail partisan gerrymandering in time for the redrawing of all the nation's electoral boundaries for this decade.
Assuming approval in November's low-turnout, off-year election, the measure will allow the Democrats in Albany to unilaterally accept or reject the handiwork of an independent but only advisory redistricting commission that next January is supposed to draw maps for the first time. When creating the commission seven years ago, the divided state government established rules to give either party a reasonable shot at legislative veto power over the lines.
Abandoning that feature will assure New York remains the biggest state where the Democrats can leverage their partisan advantage. That's because California is one of only eight states that will rely on truly independent commissions to make the maps, while in Texas and Florida the process is under Republican control — the situation, for a second straight decade, in a solid plurality of states.
New York Democrats are keen not only to preserve their control of the Legislature but also to keep dominating the congressional delegation. They hold 19 of the 27 House seats now but at least one and maybe two districts will soon have to disappear, depending on the reapportionment that follows the census, which will be finalized in the coming weeks.
The current map was decreed in 2012 by a panel of federal judges after the Legislature deadlocked. In a bid to prevent that from happening again, the lawmakers put a referendum on the ballot two years later creating a panel of 10, with two seats reserved for political independents, that will take the first shot at setting legislative and congressional boundaries.
The measure, approved with 57 percent support, said that if the Legislature is under one party's control then a two-thirds supermajority would be needed to approve the maps — essentially assuring the lines would require some GOP buy-in. The new referendum would reduce that threshold to a simple majority, putting the Democrats in total control at least in 2022.
If they decided to reject both the first and second proposals from the commission, they would effectively claim all the cartographic power for themselves.
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