Tompkins County, NY — In a surprise move, the New York Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) released two drafts of congressional, assembly, and state senate districts for New York, some of which would poise the democratic stronghold of Tompkins County to hold greater sway over future elections in a region largely represented by Republicans.

In all but one of the drafted districts, map makers kept Tompkins County whole, adhering to one of the requests outlined in a resolution submitted to the IRC by the County Legislature in June.

Although it has been recognized as a community of interest, it’s uncertain exactly which communities left-leaning Tompkins County will join. 

The two maps produced by the IRC is due to the commission’s inability to come to a consensus, that is Democrats and Republicans could not agree. In the interest of meeting the September 15th deadline, the IRC decided to release two drafts developed separately by the five Democrats and Republicans that compose the 10 person commission.

The draft dubbed the “letters” maps are backed by Democrats, while the drafts titled the “names” maps are supported by the Republican commissioners.

IRC Chair, David Imamura, explained that reaching consensus and releasing the first draft on time was particularly challenging given that 2020’s census data—the basis of the district lines—was only in the hands of commissioners for a little under a month. The September 15th deadline was codified in 2014, when voters approved sweeping reforms to New York’s redistricting process, and long before the COVID-19 pandemic drastically altered the timeline for the 2020 census’ completion.

The IRC will be submitting it’s final maps to the New York State Legislature by January 1st, 2021. Until then, the IRC will be gathering public input to inform a compromise between their opposing district drafts. 

At the IRC’s meeting on September 15th, Commissioner Martin said, “I would rather we had one [draft] that would reflect the consensus that would be necessary to put our combined weight behind a single product.” He then emphasized to New Yorkers that their input on these drafts would be formative in the final map submitted to the State Legislature. 

“It’s not about the map. It’s about the communities reflected in the map,” said Martin.

New York’s State Legislature Districts

The State Senate

New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission released two sets of maps after being unable to reach bi-partisan consensus on a single draft. On the left are the State Senate districts backed by Republican commissioners, and on the right are the State Senate districts backed by the commission’s Democrats. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

Tompkins County is wholly preserved in both draft plans for the State Senate, which should put to rest concerns over the democrat heavy community being “cracked.” In the parlance of gerrymandering, cracking is the the technique of diluting a community’s voting power by separating it between multiple voting districts. 

Tompkins County is currently split between three state senate districts, all of which have been represented by republicans term by term since New York’s last redistricting process in 2012.

Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson spoke to the IRC on August 11th, in a virtual public meeting, making the case that the county she represents has been the target of gerrymandering and that, as a community of interest, Tompkins County should be kept whole in a state senate and assembly district, as well as in a congressional district. Only the Republican backed “names” assembly draft divides Tompkins County between districts.

The Democrat “letters” senate district draft would associate Tompkins County with the Southern Tier, pairing it with all of Tioga County, as well as the lion’s share of Broome County. This potential district would consume a lot of the area that is currently New York’s 52nd senate district, represented by Republican, Fred Akshar.

“Letters” senate district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

Using the rough indicator of registered voters by county and election district, it seems like Democrats would have around a 15,000 lead in potential voters over Republicans if this district came to fruition.

The republican backed “names” draft would fold Tompkins County into a state senate district more closely aligned with the communities of the Finger Lakes, and most like the current 54th state senate district currently held by Republican Pamela Helming. Included in this draft district is the majority of Cayuga County, the entirety of Seneca and Ontario Counties, and small portions of rural Wayne and Onondaga Counties. Ithaca would be the largest population center in this case, followed by Geneva and Canandaigua. 

This possible district’s story is similar to the “letters” draft, with Tompkins County’s blue base giving Democrats 10,000 more registered voters than Republicans have.

The Assembly 

New York’s Independent Redistricting Commission released two sets of maps after being unable to reach bi-partisan consensus on a single draft. On the left are the State Assembly districts backed by Republican commissioners, and the right are the Assembly districts backed by the commission’s Democrats. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

For Tompkins County, the biggest change in either of the assembly district drafts is it’s separation from Cortland.  

Ithaca and Cortland currently share the 125th Assembly District, represented by Democrat, Anna Kelles. Cortland is, arguably, the most important neighboring county to Tompkins. Both jointly fund Tompkins-Cortland Community College; both have economies built around higher education; and both see a sizable number of workers commute between them.

These are all points raised by Legislator Robertson to the IRC in August. Although the argument to associate Tompkins and Cortland counties only seems to have informed the lines drawn in one of the congressional district drafts.

In the “letters” map, the entirety of Tompkins County is combined into an assembly district with about a third of Cayuga County, and a slice of the southern portion of Onondaga County. The commission aimed for a population of about 135,000 people for each assembly district. With a population of about 105,000 on it’s own, Tompkins County’s voters compose the bulk of this district.

“Letters” assemblies district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

In the “names” draft, Tompkins County is divided into two assembly districts. 

The western portion of Tompkins County, including the towns of Newfield, Enfield, Ulysses, and the village of Trumansburg, would be packaged into a district that most closely resembles the 126th district, represented by Republican John Lemondes Jr. 

“Names” assemblies district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

This would be a rural Finger Lakes district through and through, including most of Seneca, Cayuga, and Schuyler counties (although not Watkins Glen); and all of Yates and Cayuga Counties. The City of Auburn in Cayuga County is by far the largest city in this district and Lemondes, whose offices are in Auburn, would seem well positioned to win reelection.

In the “names” draft, the rest of Tompkins County is paired with a portion of Broome County in this draft, with a wedge of Tioga County to hold them together. Democrats lead republicans by about 15,000 registered voters in this draft district, and Ithaca would be the largest population center.

“Names” assemblies district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

Congressional Districts

The congressional districts appear to contain the largest difference of vision between the IRC’s two drafts—differences largely focused in Upstate New York, particularly around the current 23rd district representing Tompkins County and the Southern Tier. 

New York will lose a congressional seat, going from 27 to 26, and the Republican “names” draft deals with this by keeping the 23rd congressional district mostly intact, Tompkins County included.

“Names” congressional district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

The “letters” draft divides the current 23rd district among 4 separate congressional districts, turning Tompkins County into a liberal-keystone for a district built from portions of New York’s current 22nd and 24th congressional districts. They’re represented, respectively, by Republicans Claudia Tenney, and John Katko. Ithaca, Cortland, Syracuse, and Utica would all be drawn within the same lines.

“Letters” congressional district. (New York State Independent Redistricting Commission)

If this were the case, it would pit Tenney and Katko against one another in a primary in 2022. Tenney narrowly beat Democrat Anthony Brindisi last year, winning by just over 100 votes. Since the maps were released, both representatives have criticized the IRC for failing to reach a consensus.

The rest of the current 23rd is cut into three other congressional districts, doing away with the notion of a rural Southern Tier congressional representative. At the IRC’s public meeting for the Southern Tier and Central New York, this course of action was strongly advocated against by several speakers, one of which was Steuben County Republican Chair, Joe Semplolinksi.

Semplolinski declared his candidacy for the 23rd congressional seat earlier this year as Congressman Tom Reed said that he would not be seeking reelection after facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

Semplolinski argued to the IRC that the communities of the Southern Tier and of the southern Finger Lakes should be kept together in a congressional district on the basis of their rural, social, and economic commonalities. 

Apparently, this is not what the Democrats on the IRC thought as they finalized their draft.

Looking Forward

The Commission has until January 1st, with a grace period until January 15th, to submit their final maps to the New York State Legislature. 

The final maps will need 7 votes from the 10 member commission to be sent to Albany, otherwise it’s the draft with the most votes that will be sent.

The Legislature will then need to approve the final district maps with a two thirds vote, which if they cannot reach, the IRC will have until February 28th, to draft a new version.

If the Legislature rejects this version, declining to send it to the Governor’s desk, then New York’s lawmakers—who have a history of drawing maps in a partisan fashion—will have the opportunity to draw their own districts. In New York’s last redistricting process, the State Legislature was unable to come to an agreement on a congressional map, and were forced to pass off the job to a federal court.

The IRC will be holding public meetings until late November to gather feedback on the drafts they’ve released. The Southern Tier’s meeting is scheduled for October 25th, and will be held at Binghamton University

Jimmy Jordan

Jimmy Jordan is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact him at Connect with him on Twitter @jmmy_jrdn