hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues July 2021


NY’s shifting political ground

Redistricting poses risks for Delgado, Stefanik, Tonko


Mark Wilson illustration


Mark Wilson illustration


Contributing writer


The arrangement of congressional districts across eastern New York could be altered dramatically in the coming months as the state embarks on the once-a-decade redrawing of its political maps.

The redistricting process, always full of intrigue and surprises, has some new twists this time, and the results could reshape the careers of area Reps. Antonio Delgado, Elise Stefanik and Paul Tonko.

Depending on how the maps are redrawn, the three incumbents could find themselves running for re-election next year in unfamiliar or difficult political terrain, and one or more of them could even wind up competing for the same district.

The one thing that’s certain at this point is that New York will lose one U.S. House seat, dropping from 27 to 26 representatives statewide, based on the results of the 2020 census.
The disappearing seat is almost certain to be extracted from the map of upstate New York, where the population has declined or grown more slowly than in metropolitan New York City. Boundaries must be redrawn to ensure constituents are evenly distributed among the remaining districts.

“It’s all a jigsaw puzzle,” said Judith Hunter, chairwoman of the New York Democratic Rural Caucus, a coalition of Democrats in western and upstate New York.

New York’s overall population actually increased by more than 800,000 over the past decade, but that wasn’t quite enough to keep pace with the growth of other states. If the 2020 census had found just 89 additional residents statewide, New York would have avoided losing any of its House seats, according to data released by the U.S. Census Bureau in late April.

Political experts say that, depending on how the district lines are redrawn, what happens in New York could play a significant role in the battle for control of the House in next year’s midterm elections. As of late June, Democrats held a narrow nine-seat majority in the 435-member chamber, and historically the party that controls the White House tends to lose seats in midterm elections.

David Wasserman, an analyst for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report who tracks redistricting issues closely, created a hypothetical map earlier this year to illustrate how New York’s districts might change if state Democrats wind up controlling the process and using it for maximum partisan advantage. Under this scenario, Wasserman’s map showed the makeup of New York’s House delegation swinging from the current 19 Democrats and eight Republicans to 23 Democrats and just three Republicans.

But it’s not clear whether state Democrats will be able to dominate the mapmaking process to that degree.


Independent commission
The drawing of New York’s political maps historically has been controlled by the Legislature, with the governor holding veto power over the results. With Democrats having made big gains in the past few state elections, the new redistricting cycle marks the first time in decades that the same political party has controlled both houses of the Legislature as well as the governor’s office.
But under a constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2014, the job of redrawing legislative and congressional district lines has been transferred from the Legislature to an independent commission. Supporters of this new system say it was intended to remove partisanship from the redistricting process and make it more open and transparent.
The new commission has 10 members, with four each chosen by Democratic and Republican legislative leaders. Those eight members chose the remaining two commissioners, who cannot be members of either major party.

Some skeptics question just how nonpartisan the commission’s process will be, however, given that the Legislature still has the final say on accepting the maps produced by the new panel.
“In some minds, it’s not a purely independent commission, in the way we think of it,” said Robert Turner, a political science professor at Skidmore College.

Others are concerned that the commission is getting a late start, and there is uncertainty about adequate funding and the time frame when final redistrict maps must be adopted, said Jennifer Wilson, deputy director of the League of Women Voters of New York State.

Under the constitutional amendment that created it, the commission must release a preliminary plan by Sept. 15 and provide the Legislature with a final proposed plan by Jan. 1.

The Legislature can reject the plan with a two-thirds vote and send it back to the commission for reconsideration. Democrats now hold two-thirds majorities in both the Senate and Assembly, but their 43-20 edge in the Senate is close enough that, if Republicans were united in support of the commission’s plan, Democrats wouldn’t be able to reject it if more than one of their members broke ranks.

In an apparent effort to give itself more latitude, the Legislature has placed a new constitutional amendment on this November’s ballot that would allow lawmakers to reject a redistricting commission plan by a simple majority vote.

Under the amendment voters approved in 2014, the Legislature has until Feb. 28 to notify the commission whether it has accepted its redistricting plan.

“This is where it’s a little murky,” Wilson said.

If the first plan is rejected, the commission would submit a second plan, which the Legislature could also reject. If the second plan were rejected, the Legislature would take over the redistricting process.

But there is no time frame or deadline stipulated for completing the final map. In theory, new district boundaries could still be uncertain when candidates begin circulating nominating petition in early March.

“There could be people petitioning for districts that don’t exist,” Wilson said.

North Country’s loss?

Political observers say western and northern New York are the regions most likely to lose representation because of redistricting.

“It’s clear that upstate is the one that’s going to lose a seat,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a Democratic political strategist based in New York City.

Turner, the Skidmore professor, said that in addition to population shifts because of migration, some upstate districts are being affected by changes in how prison inmates are counted. For the 2020 census, he said, inmates were counted as residents of the places they lived before they were incarcerated, often in the New York City area, rather than as residents of the upstate communities where many are incarcerated, as was the practice in the past.
Sheinkopf and others said one factor in this year’s redistricting process will be how much pressure national Democratic leaders exert on their state counterparts to draw district lines unfavorable to Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, who recently was elevated to House Republicans’ No. 3 leadership post.

Sheinkopf said this strategy would be politically risky and could alienate northern New York voters.

The notion does raise the ire of local Republican officials.

“It would be unconstitutional and an abuse of power for Albany Democrats to draw the map to specifically punish the North Country for having arguably New York state’s most electorally successful and most effective Republican member of Congress,” said Essex County Republican Chairman John Gereau, who also is the regional vice chairman of the state GOP.

In every other redistricting cycle of the past 50 years, political power in New York was split between Republicans who controlled the state Senate and Democrats who ruled the Assembly. The process typically involved bartering and compromises in which the two parties shared any gains or losses. Critics described the results as a kind of bipartisan gerrymandering in which districts were drawn to protect incumbents of both parties.

But after the 2010 census, the Senate and Assembly weren’t able to agree on a new congressional map. A federal court wound up imposing the district lines that have been in effect for the past decade.

Turner said the redrawing of political districts generally follows one of three strategies.
One is the “pure partisan” process, in which maps are drawn to give maximum advantage to the political party in power.

The second is the “incumbent protection” process, in which there is an attempt to avoid putting two incumbents in the same new congressional district.

Under this strategy, map makers would have some leeway this cycle, as two incumbents – Republican Reps. Lee Zeldin of Long Island and Tom Reed of the Southern Tier -- are not expected to seek re-election.

“And then there’s the ‘pure competitive’ process,” in which map makers attempt to draw the most competitive districts without regard to political party or incumbency, Turner said.


Consolidating area districts
In one hypothetical scenario that has been widely discussed, the boundary of the current 21st Congressional District, which Stefanik represents, would shift substantially to the west, taking in much of the current 22nd district, which is represented by Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Republican from the Utica area.

Democratic leaders see an opportunity to combine two predominately Republican areas in a single district, potentially strengthening the Democratic advantage in other districts.
Stefanik’s current district has the highest concentration of GOP voters among the state’s congressional districts, with enrolled Republicans accounting for 40.6 percent of its voters. Tenney’s district has the third highest concentration of Republicans, at 38.9 percent.
Warren County Democratic Chairwoman Lynne Boecher predicted the boundaries of Stefanik’s district will wind up moving into Tenney’s turf.

“I see it moving west – a lot, probably,” Boecher said.

Hunter, the Democratic Rural Caucus chairwoman, also likes that idea.
“Obviously, from a partisan point of view, I’d like to see the two Republicans drawn into the same district,” she said.

Stefanik and Tenney wouldn’t necessarily wind up as incumbents in the same district, however, if the southeastern portion of the current 21st district is separated from its northern and western reaches. Stefanik lives in Schuylerville, near the southeastern edge of the 21st.

Boecher said one plausible scenario would be to separate Warren County into two congressional districts, with Glens Falls, Queensbury and possibly Lake George, along with a portion of Saratoga County, added to either the current 19th or 20th districts, which are represented by Delgado and Tonko respectively.

“I can see that making sense,” she said.

The hypothetical map prepared by Wasserman, of The Cook Political Report, shows Washington County and a portion of Warren County added to what is now Delgado’s district. The map also shows Delgado, D-Rhinebeck, losing much of the territory he now represents west of the Hudson River, including heavily Democratic Ulster County.

Both Delgado and Stefanik posted hefty campaign fund-raising totals in the first quarter of this year, prompting some political pundits to speculate that the two incumbents see a chance of competing against each other in a newly drawn district.

Stefanik raised $1.1 million in the first quarter and had $2.51 million on hand in her campaign fund as of March 31. Delgado raised $1.08 million in the first quarter and had $4.07 million on hand, according to reports the campaigns filed with the Federal Election Commission.

By comparison, Tonko, D-Amsterdam, raised just $103,000 in the first quarter and had $830,000 on hand as of March 31, suggesting he does not expect a serious re-election challenge.
Gereau, the Essex County Republican chairman, predicted Democratic leaders will try to reconfigure Delgado’s district to increase his partisan enrollment advantage, possibly by expanding the current 19th district west into the Binghamton area.

Democrats have a slight voter enrollment advantage in the current 19th District, with 34.2 percent to the Republicans’ 30.7 percent. But the district’s voters backed Republican representatives in the three elections before Delgado won in 2018.