For decades, New York's political power structure was maintained with a relatively straightforward arrangement: Republicans held power in the state Senate, Democrats in the state Assembly, and both parties were able to draw their own district boundaries, in effect choosing their own voters, locking in their constituents to improve the odds of keeping power after Election Day.
Lawmakers at the federal level even retained lobbyists to ensure their districts could be favorably drawn for the House of Representatives. The process would lead to some faintly ridiculous looking districts on a map, but ultimately shifting demographics upset that careful balance of power. But over the last seven years, things began to change — and could have a wide-ranging impact on who gets elected to office in New York, ultimately affecting what kind of policies are approved in Albany and Washington, D.C.
"This issue is not just what's happening in the state Legislature, but could ultimately impact what's happening in the country and the world," said Blair Horner of the New York Public Interest Research Group.
Republicans no longer hold power anywhere in state government as their enrollment continues to slide statewide. But in 2012, the GOP was maintaining a narrow hold on power in the state Senate. At the time, Gov. Andrew Cuomo was pushing the Legislature to approve a state constitutional amendment to redistricting that would throw the process to an independent commission for the next decade.
Lawmakers approved the maps and Cuomo approved what good-government advocates hoped would be the last gerrymandered maps in Albany.
But this November, voters will consider yet another constitutional amendment that alters the process once again.
A proposed constitutional amendment would cap the number of state senators at 63 members and bar people in prison being counted as constituents of the districted they are incarcerated in — two methods Republicans have used in the past to swell their ranks.
It would also allow for a simple majority, not a supermajority, in the Legislature to overrule the redistricting commission and draw the lines themselves if the maps by the commission are voted down twice. That has drawn concerns from Republicans like Sen. Jim Tedisco, who is urging voters to turn down the amendment.
"I believe it's going to take us back to making it easier for majorities to build their base, keep them stronger, bring politics back into it, and have elected officials picking their constituents, not elected officials picking their constituents," Tedisco said.
Republicans are once again warily eyeing the redistricting process. Sen. Daphne Jordan, a Republican who represents a district neighboring Tedisco, wants her constituents to have a voice in the process.
"I don't know if it will look different at all," she said while standing next to a map of her district, which curves around the city of Albany and largely covers a swath of the upper Hudson Valley. "It's not up to me to decide how the district will be. It's for the people, all New Yorkers, to decide how they want their districts to look. Leave the politicians out, let the people be heard, as to how they want their lines to be drawn."
Still, Horner of NYPIRG believes the concerns raised by Republicans are overblown. After all, Democrats already hold supermajorities in the state Senate and Assembly in Albany.
"You look at all these issues on balance and after decades of the Democrats and Republicans colluding to do redistricting to benefit themselves, now this will be different," he said. "The amendment doesn't really matter one way or the other with regard to that."