What Andrew Cuomo is about to do on redistricting, for the record

Andrew Cuomo. (saebaryo via flickr)
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Andrew Cuomo has shown every indication, over the past couple of months, of wishing he never promised to pick a fight with the legislature over New York's awful redistricting process.

He's rationalized his retreat in increments, from his warning that a court-run redrawing of the lines would result in "chaos," to the subjective conditions he laid out for an acceptable gerrymander, to his uncharacteristic claim of powerlessness, to his criticism of an independent judge's congressional map, to his lightly supported characterization of the latest gerrymandered legislative draft-map as "progress" from the previous gerrymandered version. 

It's all supposed to add up to something that makes sense.

We may find out precisely what that is later today, as legislative leaders work to make some further amendments to their bill—per the input of the governor's aides, presumably—and then submit it for the governor's official approval.

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If the governor does as expected and signs the bill, we know what his explanation will look like. He will announce, probably without fanfare, and possibly only by press release, that he has settled on a far-reaching compromise, and that he is doing so with great regret, but that he has won a commitment to amend the state constitution in a way that changes the once-a-decade process going forward.

There are numerous problems with this, substantively speaking. (Some of them are neatly laid out here by Bill Hammond.)

One is that if Cuomo signs off on the district maps that the lawmakers have drawn for themselves, New York will have gerrymandered lines in place for another ten years. This will mean that it will be just as hard to unseat incumbents as it was before. And this in turn will ensure that Albany is just as unaccountable to voters as it ever was in the pre-Cuomo era.

Another problem is that the supposed payoff for this very large concession could, in some ways, be worse than no payoff at all.

The most recent version of the constitutional amendment the legislature is supposed to be committing to, in exchange for Cuomo's approval of their lines, creates a bipartisan (which is not to say "independent") commission to oversee the next redistricting in 2022. And when that evenly split commission inevitably deadlocks over the next set of lines, the process gets kicked right back to the legislature.

The proposed constutional amendment doesn't fix the large, systematically engineered population variances between districts that are currently permitted, and which make it possible, among other things, for the Republicans to continue to hang on to the State Senate despite a massive statewide voter-registration disadvantage.

And the proposed constitutional amendment doesn't mention recent legislation that requires prisoners to be counted as voters at their (mostly downstate) home addresses rather than at the (mostly upstate) addresses of the buildings in which they're incarcerated. Unless you happen to be of the view that the previous system made sense, it means that the constitutional fix would move actually move things backward.

So essentially, it's this:

If Cuomo vetoes the lines, a federal judge will get to draw them, which would produce a result (whatever it is) that will make lots of lawmakers and interest groups unhappy, but which will at the very least ensure that the lines are not tailored to insulate incumbents and majority parties from the vicissitudes of democracy. It would also create a precedent that will mean that when the next self-interested legislature is faced with this same situation, the next self-styled-reformer governor will be able to present that legislature with a choice between instituting an independent redistricting process for real or turning it all over, once again, to the courts. And the legislature will believe it.

If, on the other hand, Cuomo signs the legislature's lines into law, Albany stays exactly the same and the promise of a "fix" that will probably preclude the possibility of a real, actual fix for at least a generation.

No one is naive enough to think that this is easy for Andrew Cuomo. Redistricting reform poses a real threat to legislative leaders, particularly to the Senate Republicans, with whom he has worked well.

Sure, if he follows through on his promise to veto their gerrymander, the New York Times editorial board will cheer, but then, for as long as he remains in this particular office, Cuomo will have to live with either a vengeful Republican Senate majority or a dysfunctional Democratic one, which may turn out to be even worse for him.

Who knows, though. Maybe the legislative leaders will push Cuomo too far by refusing to make any further changes to their very obviously flawed bill, and the governor will refuse to sign off after all.

But there will be no putting a pretty face on this one if that doesn't happen. If Cuomo caves, it will mean that he went to Albany to change it, and failed.