Contextualizing New York’s Mess: A Look at Redistricting Follies in History

March 15, 2012 at 8:21 am

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo made redistricting reform a priority in his 2010 campaign. Now that things haven't gone according to plan in the legislature, those reforms may have to wait until 2022. AP/Hans Pennink

2011 was supposed to be the year that major reforms were brought to the New York State redistricting process. For years, good government groups have claimed that Albany politicians unfairly gerrymander districts to favor incumbents, disempowering and disenchanting voters.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the State Senate’s Republican Majority Leader Dean Skelos both promised to create an independent panel to draw legislative and Congressional district lines during their 2010 campaigns. But on Wednesday, the governor cut a deal with the legislature to accept their non-independent redistricting plan, in exchange for a guarantee to pass a State Constitutional amendment that would require the creation of an independent redistricting commission in the 2022 redistricting process.

Good government groups have been split on the issue, with some willing to accept the concessions, and others very vocally opposed to it. Meanwhile, the other new districts that have to be created — the Congressional maps — were drawn up by federal magistrate judge Roanne L. Mann on Monday, and are now being investigated by a federal judicial panel. This year’s Congressional primaries are scheduled for June 26, and legislative primaries will take place on Sept. 11, though it’s still possible those dates could change.

The Center for Urban Research has created interactive maps that allow you to see where the legislature and Congress districts currently stand.

An abridged version of the long and complex 2011-2012 redistricting story could read, “quite a mess.” But a glimpse into some of the redistricting processes of the past shows that it certainly isn’t the first mess, and probably won’t be the last.

In the 1960s, states were still using the same legislative districts they’d been using since the turn of the century, when cities were small and the majority of Americans lived on farms. Cities weren’t receiving proper representation, and until the landmark 1962 Supreme Court case, Baker v. Carr, courts had refused to take on the states’ failure to redistrict.

The fallout of that ruling, which decided that redistricting was justiciable, created waves of legal battles, imaginative attempts at gerrymandering and political head-scratching as politicians across the country tried to figure out how the process was supposed to work.

“The mess we have now is because politics has paralyzed them [the State legislature], but in the late ’50s and ’60s it was because they couldn’t figure out what the rules were,” said Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School.

In 1953, Former Illinois Gov. William Stratton forced House and Senate members to redraw district maps for the first time since 1901. Things went swimmingly until a major debacle in 1964, when all Illinois House members were elected at-large. AP Photo

One of the wackiest of the United State’s ’60s redistricting flubs occurred in Illinois.

Recognizing Chicago’s extreme under-representation early on, in 1953 Illinois Gov. William Stratton convinced the State legislature to create an amendment, requiring both House and Senate members to redistrict themselves. If they didn’t, a bipartisan commission would do it for them. By 1955, both chambers had pulled it off. But then, in 1963, the House found itself  stalled over how many districts would be moved from the bottom of the state to the top. Eventually, they created a plan, the governor vetoed it and the bipartisan commission was charged with cleaning up the mess. Except the commission also couldn’t agree on a plan before their deadline, so in 1964 all members of the House were elected at large, meaning they were elected by the entire body of state voters rather than by their individual districts. The commission finally passed a plan in 1971.

In the same era in New York, there were similar complications, which might sound familiar to contemporary voters.

In 1961, the radio station WMCA filed a lawsuit claiming the state legislature’s apportionment was unconstitutional, but the U.S. Supreme Court wouldn’t touch it. After Baker v. Carr, the radio station and its allies tried again, and in 1964 the court agreed with them. A district court ruled that the legislature had to create a new redistricting plan. Perhaps a little overzealous, they created four, figuring one would stick. Three were ruled unconstitutional by federal judges, and the fourth was tossed out, since it called for more Assembly members than the state was legally allotted. The federal court told them to try again. They did, and when they failed again in 1965, a federally appointed panel of retired judges finally did it for them the following year.

In California, voters tried to turn the tables on the legislature in 1982.

In 1981, both bodies of the California legislature were controlled by Democratic majorities who swiftly enacted a redistricting plan for the Senate, Assembly and Congressional districts. In 1982, Republicans, standing to be bruised by the plan, fought back by introducing three voter referendums to overturn the Democrats’ plan. Voters overturned the plan, but the state Supreme Court had ruled decided the plan would be used in the 1982 elections. The Assembly rushed to create another voter referendum, which would have required their district map to be used through 1991. Shockingly, voters defeated their proposition and in 1983 the legislature had to redistrict again.

In the last decade, Texas and Colorado took on weird mid-cycle redistricting plans.

Normally, redistricting happens every ten years, following the release of new Census data. But sometimes a moment so rare arrives that it must be seized upon. Such was the case in 2002, when Texas Republicans won control of the state legislature for the first time in 130 years. Beginning in 2001, Rep. Tom Delay (R) began raising funds for a PAC called Texans for a Republican Majority. In 2003, they released a new Congressional district map — the infamous Plan 1374C. Democrats cried “gerrymandering” and argued the redistricting violated the Voting Rights Act by illegally weakening the power of black and Latino voters. But to no avail. The Republicans beat the Democrats in the 2004 Congressional election. In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the mid-cycle redistricting was legal, but that in one heavily Latino district the legislature had indeed violated the Voting Rights Act and forced lawmakers to redraw that district’s lines.

These two maps show the results of the 2003 (left) and 2004 (right) Texas House elections. Democrats filed a lawsuit, and in 2006 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the lines of one district violated the Voting Rights Act. Photo courtesy of enotes.

In Colorado, back in 2001, before full Census figures were released, Democrats in control of the State Senate convinced the Republican controlled House to agree to a special session, in which they created a bicameral body to draw new district maps. After a district court judge ruled that the lawmakers hadn’t produced a viable plan, the judge drew his own map in 2002. The Republicans kept their majority in the House and scored an extra Senate seat in that year’s elections, but the fight wasn’t over. In  2003, the Republicans drew up a new map, which Democrats dubbed “the midnight gerrymander” in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, which the court refused to hear. And that’s how Colorado operated under a judicially created redistricting map until 2011.

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