Federal Judge Dashes Democrats’ Hopes for N.Y. District Maps

A federal judge in Albany on Tuesday authorized New York to push back its congressional primary until August, a delay that will give more time for a neutral expert to draw new congressional maps for this year’s midterm contest.

The scheduling change all but kills a last-ditch effort by national Democrats to preserve district lines that would have helped them maintain control of the House but were declared unconstitutional in a series of court decisions.

Democrats had pinned faint hopes on a decade-old federal court order that fixed the primary date in June to protect the rights of Americans casting ballots from overseas. But Judge Gary L. Sharpe of the Northern District of New York said that he saw no reason to keep that date.

“It is clear that a modification of the court’s prior injunction order is sensible and necessary to avoid a chaotic situation for all New York voters — overseas or not,” he wrote.

The order was the latest — and possibly the final — twist in a high-stakes legal dispute over New York’s congressional maps that has raged for two months in state and federal court, leaving the campaign season in chaos.

What to Know About Redistricting

  • Redistricting, Explained: Here are some answers to your most pressing questions about the process that is reshaping American politics.
  • Understand Gerrymandering: Can you gerrymander your party to power? Try to draw your own districts in this imaginary state.
  • Killing Competition: The number of competitive districts is dropping, as both parties use redistricting to draw themselves into safe seats.
  • Deepening Divides: As political mapmakers create lopsided new district lines, the already polarized parties are being pulled even farther apart.

The State Court of Appeals, the state’s highest court, ruled in late April that Democratic leaders had violated the State Constitution when they adopted the new congressional and State Senate district lines earlier this year. The judges also found that the congressional map was an impermissible partisan gerrymander, and ordered a court-appointed special master to redraft both sets of maps.

The trial court judge overseeing the case, Patrick F. McAllister, subsequently delayed the congressional and State Senate contests until August to allow time to implement the new maps.

With the state courts set against them, national Democrats tried their luck with the federal courts last week, asking judges to intervene in the dispute on technical grounds to insist that the state hold its primary in June on the same Democrat-friendly maps struck down by the state courts.

In a preliminary hearing on the matter last week, Judge Lewis A. Kaplan of the Southern District of New York denied the Democrats’ request for a temporary restraining order and sharply criticized their legal arguments.

“Let’s be frank,” Judge Kaplan said. “This is a Hail Mary pass, the object of which is to take a long-shot try at having the New York primaries conducted on district lines that the state says is unconstitutional.”

Citing his father, a Ukrainian refugee, the judge warned that agreeing with the Democrats’ arguments “impinges, to some degree, on the public perception” of free elections and respect for the courts.

Democrats could still try to contest the decision in a federal appeals court, but legal analysts said that the chances of success were slim. Those judges would be hesitant to second guess Judges Sharpe and Kaplan, particularly when the New York State Board of Elections and the Justice Department in Washington do not oppose moving the date of the primary.

A spokesman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which financed the lawsuit, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Republicans were quick to celebrate another Democratic defeat and point out that their arguments had failed before five different state and federal judges.

How U.S. Redistricting Works

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What is redistricting? It’s the redrawing of the boundaries of congressional and state legislative districts. It happens every 10 years, after the census, to reflect changes in population.

Why is it important this year? With an extremely slim Democratic margin in the House of Representatives, simply redrawing maps in a few key states could determine control of Congress in 2022.

How does it work? The census dictates how many seats in Congress each state will get. Mapmakers then work to ensure that a state’s districts all have roughly the same number of residents, to ensure equal representation in the House.

Who draws the new maps? Each state has its own process. Eleven states leave the mapmaking to an outside panel. But most — 39 states — have state lawmakers draw the new maps for Congress.

If state legislators can draw their own districts, won’t they be biased? Yes. Partisan mapmakers often move district lines — subtly or egregiously — to cluster voters in a way that advances a political goal. This is called gerrymandering.

What is gerrymandering? It refers to the intentional distortion of district maps to give one party an advantage. While all districts must have roughly the same population, mapmakers can make subjective decisions to create a partisan tilt.

Is gerrymandering legal? Yes and no. In 2019, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal courts have no role to play in blocking partisan gerrymanders. However, the court left intact parts of the Voting Rights Act that prohibit racial or ethnic gerrymandering.

Want to know more about redistricting and gerrymandering? Times reporters answer your most pressing questions here.

The Democrat-drawn congressional map rejected by the courts would have given the party a clear advantage in 22 of New York’s 26 congressional districts, effectively netting Democrats three seats by packing Republicans in just a few districts. Court-drawn maps are widely expected to produce more competitive districts.

The process to develop new replacement maps is well underway. On Friday, Justice McAllister, of the Steuben County Supreme Court, and Jonathan Cervas, the special master he had appointed to redraw the maps, heard testimony from close to two dozen people about the need to preserve various communities of common interest or geographic boundaries.

Mr. Cervas is expected to present new House and State Senate maps to the court on May 16. But Democrats, led by Representative Hakeem Jeffries of Brooklyn, are pushing for the judge to add additional hearings in New York City so voters of color can offer input.

On Tuesday, Justice McAllister heard separate arguments over whether to also invalidate the State Assembly districts approved by the State Legislature this year.

The Court of Appeals ruling did not apply to Assembly districts because the Republicans who brought the suit had not formally challenged them. Now, multiple parties are trying to intervene in the case to also have the Assembly districts scrapped.

Justice McAllister cast doubt on the prospect during oral arguments on Tuesday, suggesting there wasn’t enough time to replace the Assembly maps so late in an election year and that doing so could be wasted effort since the existing maps had bipartisan support, unlike the congressional and Senate districts.

“I’m not sure this can work,” he said.

The judge was expected to rule on the matter as soon as Tuesday afternoon.

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