When a federal court took control of the congressional redistricting process in 2012 after state lawmakers failed to reach a deal on what the maps should look like, something new happened: House seats in New York were competitive.
But now as majority Democrats in the state Legislature prepare to finalize their maps a decade later, some fear New York is falling further into a similar cycle of polarization and partisanship that has played out in other states.
"It certainly isn't good for democracy," said Michael Li, a counsel for the Brennan Center, of the national trend of partisan gerrymandering. "It shouldn't depend on who has control in a given year and whether you have the right governor and the right people on the state Supreme Court."
How the lines are ultimately drawn in a wonky process that's often little noticed by most voters could lead to further and profound changes to New York's politics. Observers believe it could lead to more hard right or hard left elected officials less willing to buck their parties and more interested in pleasing their increasingly polarized voters.
For years, Democrats tried to unseat Republican Rep. John Katko in Central New York. A former prosecutor, Katko unseated Democratic Rep. Dan Maffei in 2014. He holds conservative views on crime and abortion. He's also voted to uphold the Affordable Care Act, the signature health care law of the Obama era. He voted to impeach a member of his own party, President Donald Trump, last year following the riot at the U.S. Capitol.
But representatives like Katko, who will retire at the end of the year, will likely become rarer in New York. Katko's district will be altered to include Tompkins County, becoming more friendly to a Democratic candidate.
Battleground races in New York were the norm for much of New York in the last decade. Competitive races played out in Central New York, the Hudson Valley and on Long Island, with some regularity each cycle even as the state as a whole trended more Democratic.
It's not yet clear, should the new districts be adopted, if the cycle of battleground races will continue. But experts like Li of the Brennan Center who have studied redistricting say the New York proposals are a textbook example of trying to maximize votes.
"I think the maps that are proposed in New York for Congress really in a lot of ways are a master class in gerrymandering," Li 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."
Republican former Rep. John Faso, who had represented a battleground seat himself in Congress before losing in 2018 to Democratic Rep. Antonio Delgado, expects there will be a court challenge to the New York maps.
"Looking at this, it's pretty clear it's a partisan gerrymander," he said. "The question is whether the courts take recognition of it."
There could still be competitive elections, but those will likely be in party primaries, which can produce nominees preferred by a more hyperpartisan base, Faso said. Competition in the general election later in the fall would be paltry by comparison.
"When an official has a solidly Democratic or a solidly Republican district, they're more concerned about a primary than they're concerned about a general election," Faso said. "That tends to enhance the polarization because people tend to adopt more strident, more political polarized positions."
A national trend
Republicans who control statehouses across the country also control the redistricting process. Texas and Georgia — states Democrats are trying to gain a political foothold in — could send more Republican members of Congress to Washington next year and tilt the balance of power in the chamber.
In New York, Democratic leaders don't want to be left behind in the scramble to maximize power at the ballot box.
"I never favor unilateral disarmament," said New York Democratic Party Chairman Jay Jacobs earlier this month. "Republicans across the country are redrawing congressional lines to favor their candidates. Without being obnoxious in New York, if lines are drawn with communities and help Democrats, then that is the course we should take."
And that, in turn, has created something of a partisan feedback loop, said Luke Perry, a political science professor at Utica College.
"New York as a whole has been swept up in a national gerrymandering battle," he said. "I think there's a lot of pressure by Democrats nationally to maximize gains here."
A legal challenge?
There is an expectation the lines as proposed will be challenged in the courts. New York's constitution has placed limits on how the redistricting process can be gamed for one party or one person.
And Democratic lawmakers have defended the way the lines were drawn. New York is, after all, a Democratic-heavy state. State Sen. Michael Gianaris in a radio interview with WNYC on Tuesday defended the process, arguing the lines are simply a reflection of being fairly drawn, show very little population differences and are largely compact.
"New York is a deep blue state. We all know this," he said. "It's well known nationally. So when the maps are drawn fairly, it's going to be a result that reflects that reality."
He expects the maps will withstand legal scrutiny. Broadly, courts have been deferential in the power Legislatures hold over the process.
Gov. Kathy Hochul on Tuesday in the Bronx told reporters she wants the process to move forward swiftly given the expedited political calendar. Party primaries are scheduled for June.
"We need to make sure the redistricting process is moving forward at a rapid pace," she said, adding her role will be limited to reviewing the maps. "I will wait to see what's presented to me."
Any challenge will likely have to come in state court. Li, the Brennan Center expert, pointed to the proposed voting rights bill that has stalled in Congress that would have overhauled how states redraw legislative boundaries. The amendment for the redistricting meant to bar obvious gerrymandering is yet to be tested.
"It's never used in litigation before," Li said, "and it remains to be seen if the Court of Appeals will give them much teeth."