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GOP state lawmakers sue over new district maps approved by Democrats

A snowy day at the New York State Capitol.
Matt Ryan
New York NOW
A snowy day at the New York State Capitol.

Republicans in the New York State Legislature began legal action after Gov. Kathy Hochul signed new district maps for congressional and legislative seats that the GOP said are blatantly gerrymandered.

Republicans believe that this time, their lawsuit may win.

The new maps were approved by the Democratic supermajorities in both houses of the Legislature after Republicans voiced their complaints over districts that will result in four Republican state senators squeezed into two districts and forced to compete against each other.

The maps also redraw the districts of four of eight Republican congressional representatives to add more Democratic voters, which will likely make it harder for them to win reelection in November.

The Democrats drew the maps after a bipartisan commission gridlocked and could not agree on one set of maps.

Senate Deputy Minority Leader Andrew Lanza called it the “greatest power grab ever” that he said comes at the expense of the people of New York.

“Gerrymandering is not just some funny expression that we talk about,” Lanza said. “It means the voters were screwed.

“That’s what gerrymandering means,” he continued. “It means the voters were used as pawns to serve one party.”

Republicans are no strangers to manipulating districts to help their party keep power. For decades, when the GOP controlled the Senate, they jointly drew the maps with Democrats who lead the state Assembly. Each party allowed the other to retain their dominance in their respective houses.

It’s not only Republicans who are critical of the maps.

During debate over the new congressional district lines on Wednesday, Sen. Tom O’Mara quoted an assessment from redistricting expert Michael Li, with New York University’s Brennan Center, to bolster the GOP’s argument.

“He’s been quoted as, ‘I think the maps that are proposed in New York for Congress really, in a lot of ways, are a master class in gerrymandering,’” O’Mara said. “‘They take maps that were very responsive and had a lot of competition, and they take out a number of Republican incumbents very strategically.’”

“That gentleman is mistaken,” answered Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, who defended the maps during debate.

Gianaris said the maps are drawn fairly, and that many of the changes were made to fix the results of Republican gerrymandering in the past.

Li, in an interview, said the maps are gerrymandered and would not stand up to the standards in the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act that Democrats in Congress hope to pass.

“There’s no question that this map has a lot of partisan bias in it, and that it’s a problem,” Li said. “The real question is whether courts are going to be willing to wade into that, and how much time they are going to need to do that work.”

Republicans say a lawsuit is likely. In past decades, the state’s courts have sided with the Legislature over challengers to the maps. But this time, because of a change to the state’s constitution in 2014, the districts cannot be designed to help or harm incumbents or quell competition.

Susan Lerner, with the government reform group Common Cause, said that might give challengers a shot.

“What’s relevant is the fact that there are now stated criteria in our state constitution,” Lerner said. “Previously, all the constitution said was that the Legislature gets to draw the maps.”

Lerner called the maps a “major disservice to voters.”

Li said it remains to be seen whether the judges on the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, will decide to take on what could be a time-consuming case.

“None of these judges have had a case that is anything like this before,” Li said. “So this is uncharted territory.”

The maps were signed by Gov. Kathy Hochul Thursday night, and they will remain in place for at least the 2022 elections.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau chief for the New York Public News Network, composed of a dozen newsrooms across the state. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.