TOMPKINS COUNTY, N.Y.—The New York State Independent Redistricting Commission (IRC) visited the Southern Tier during their second state-wide tour to gather public input on the assembly, senate, and congressional district maps they’re drafting. They’re aiming for a single version this time.
The expectation had been for the IRC to release a single map for public comment in September, which would then be finalized by the commission before being put to a vote in the state legislature. The commission was established to redraw district maps free of the partisan gerrymandering that has plagued past redistricting processes in New York State, but the two sets of maps released by the IRC resulted from differences held along party lines.
The commission is composed of four Democrats, four Republicans, and two Independents. The drafts titled the “names” maps are supported by the Republican commissioners, the drafts dubbed the “letters” maps are backed by Democrats, which have gained the support of the Tompkins County Legislature.
With this lack of consensus looming over the first draft maps, IRC Chair David Imamura, a Democrat, kicked off Tuesday’s public hearing at Binghamton University with the message that the redistricting process isn’t about picking one map over the other. “As we said when the maps were released, those maps are just drafts. They can and should change based on the input that we received from you today,” said Imamura.
IRC Vice Chair Jack Martins, a Republican, followed Immamura saying, “Some people have described us as being non-partisan, I disagree. I think, frankly, that’s naive. We’re balanced.”
“This isn’t a binary discussion,” said Martins. “We’re not limited to two maps. Please don’t limit your comments to the two maps. They may both be wrong. And so take the opportunity to please provide us with your input.”
What was supposed to be a year-long redistricting process was compressed into the span of four months. Delays in the state allocating funding to the IRC, and delays in the completion of the 2020 census—the population data which the districts must be informed by—made the process “enormously challenging,” said Imamura. He added that he felt the commission has done “exceedingly well” despite the circumstances it has had to work under.
A measure on this year’s ballot could also further restrict the timeline which the commission has to complete their maps, but also give candidates running for office the ability to conduct more timely spring primary campaigns. At the time, no one running for congressional or state office in 2022 in New York can be absolutely certain what their district will look—not until the state Legislature approves the districts.
Tompkins County Legislator Martha Robertson (D) appeared before the IRC on Tuesday to endorse the Democrat-backed letters map as the county’s preferred draft. The county legislature passed a resolution with a vote of 12-2 at their Oct. 19 meeting outlining this request to the commission.
Robertson said that, “as you consider revisions to your draft maps, we would urge you to use the letters maps as the starting point.”
The only direct concern Robertson brought up with the letters draft maps was that Tompkins County wasn’t included with Cortland County in the state and senate and assembly districts. Robertson reiterated previously emphasized connections between Tompkins and Cortland counties to the IRC on Tuesday, pointing out that it jointly funds a community college, Tompkins-Cortland Community College; that both counties have economies centered on higher education; and that a large number of commuters live in either county but work in the other.
Tompkins and Cortland Counties have shared an assembly district district for decades, currently the 125th District represented by Assemblymember Anna Kelles (D).
The letters congressional draft map is the only map that includes Tompkins County in a district with Cortland, which Robertson and the Tompkins County legislature has stressed to the IRC as a community closely tied to their own. If this map draft were finalized, it would land Tompkins County in a congressional district that would seem likely to elect a Democrat. In the 2020 election, the theoretical district yielded over 203,000 votes for President Joe Biden, and just over 140,000 votes for former president Donald Trump.
See the full map at https://www.redistrictingandyou.org/
Robertson, who ran for congress against incumbent Tom Reed in 2014, called this district a “much more compact, accessible, and reasonable district” than the names map or the current 23rd congressional district Tompkins County is in.
But the letters congressional district also attracted the scorn of the League of Women Voters (LWV) of Tompkins County.
Connie Stirling-Engman, Co-Treasurer of the LWV of Tompkins County, read a letter on behalf of the organization to the IRC on Tuesday. The League generally criticized the IRC for not providing clearer guidelines for how it ensures coherence and compactness in the districts it draws, and for a partisan influence that the league sees in each set of maps.
“The maps you have presented appear to us to favor either one or the other of the two major parties,”said Stirling-Engman. She added, “This plan needs to include clarification of the criteria used to group communities together,” said Stirling-Engman.”
Stirling-Engman said, “When we look at the letters congressional district plan, we see that our district stretches from the southern edge of Tompkins County in a jagged C shape, all the way to Utica, and Rome, with a neat little jog to include the city of Cortland but none of its surrounding county.”
Stirling-Engman said that the names congressional map does not follow strong guidelines of compactness in general, focusing on her comments on the district including Tompkins County, which includes eight other counties and spans all the way to lake Erie along the Pennsylvania border.
In the letter Sitrling-Engman read, the LWV of Tompkins County further criticized the names draft maps, saying its senate district draft “cut up many counties and meanders all over.” Stirling-Engman expressed that the view of the LWV of Tompkins County is that the letters senate district draft is “more cohesive, and more compact and makes more sense, but it seems to cut up Broome County in a strange way.”
In response to the LWV of Tompkins County’s comments, IRC Vice Chair Jack Martins highlighted the tension of “population” and “compactness” that the commission faces when drawing districts in rural areas of New York.
The commission needs to make every district—whether it be congressional or in the state legislature—nearly equal in population. Martins said that the commission is looking at rural areas as communities of interest which, since they are more sparsely populated, makes those districts larger.
“Now, part of the challenge for a commission is whether or not to add more dense areas, but then by doing so possibly not keep communities of interest together,” said Martins.
Commission chairman David Imamura later echoed this intrinsic challenge to the process, and emphasized that “what drives the maps, first and foremost, is the numbers.”
“We can have very strong opinions—in fact, I do have very strong opinions about certain communities being together with other communities—but at the end of the day, the districts have to be in compliance with the law with regards to population,” said Imamura.
Ballot Proposal 1:
The time that the IRC has to redraw these maps is also still in flux. On Nov. 2,Election Day, and during early voting, voters will have the opportunity to vote on a ballot measure that, if passed, would change the timeline that the IRC has to submit their maps to the state legislature, as well as a host of other changes.
Currently, the IRC can submit their first draft to the State Legislature by Jan. 15. If those districts are rejected by the Legislature, then the IRC has until Feb. 28 to submit new maps. At that point, if the Legislature doesn’t approve the districts, then it can take over the redistricting process.
If approved, Ballot Proposal 1 measure would make it so that the IRC has to submit their final draft map to the state legislature by Jan. 1. If those maps are rejected by the Legislature, then the IRC has until Jan. 15 to submit a second set of maps. Under the changes If the IRC isn’t able to approve a set of maps by Jan. 1, then the Legislature automatically takes over the redistricting process.
The measure would also move back the date the IRC would have to submit their final maps to the legislature in future years, requiring them to submit their maps by Nov. 1, starting in 2022.
The ballot measure would also decrease the number of votes needed to approve the maps in the state legislature. Currently, the map drafts would need 67 percent of the lawmakers in both chambers of the legislature to approve them. The ballot would decrease that to 60 percent.
This point in particular has been attacked by state Republicans as an attempt to decrease the influence of the minority party in the redistricting process.
The measure also includes a variety of other reforms to the New York State Constitution, which include capping the number of state senators at 63; ensuring that the census counts incarcerated people in their last place of residence rather than where they are in prison (this is already a state law but the ballot would add it to the constitution); ensuring that undocumented immigrants be included in the census by allowing New York to conduct its own population counts.
The variety of reforms in Ballot Proposal 1 and the implications it would have on the redistricting process has divided good government-groups. The LWV and Citizens Union are pushing for voters to turn down the measure, arguing that despite some beneficial items in the ballot, the effects of the ballot could disproportionately benefit the Democratic lawmakers currently in power, not necessarily the communities of interest that are supposed to be the guiding factor in how this redistricting process is conducted.
Proponents of Ballot Proposal 1 include Common Cause, the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Citizen Action, and the NY Civic Engagement Table, who see the changes the ballot measure would bring as an improvement to the redistricting process and the democratic standing of the state’s electoral process.
Early voting is currently underway in New York, and in Tompkins County there local races that will see some big turnover on the Tompkins County Legislature and the City of Ithaca’s Common Council.
Get out and vote.