For the better part of a decade, Democratic activists and their allies in media went about convincing themselves that the GOP’s electoral strength was a function of its willingness to hit below the belt. The Republican Party secured political power, so the thinking went, because it either gamed the system or benefited from its defilement. The only way to prevent Republicans from “rigging the 2022 election” by gerrymandering themselves into a House majority would be to abandon “nonpartisan redistricting.” Democrats, too, needed “to play dirty to win.”
Thus, the left embarked on a campaign aimed at convincing Democrats to use the power of reapportionment to engineer victories for themselves, even though it ran counter to a decade of Democrat-led efforts to decouple redistricting from the political process. The campaign worked, nowhere more so than in the state of New York.
Following her predecessor’s ignominious resignation, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul signaled a willingness to wrest the decennial redistricting process from the hands of the Independent Redistricting Commission tasked with drawing new maps of the Empire State. “I am also the leader of the New York State Democratic Party,” she told the New York Times last August. “The Democratic Party has to regain its position that it once had when I was growing up.”
Indeed, given the GOP’s commitment to using the political process to shore up its incumbents and expose Democrats to as much vulnerability as possible, it would be “political malpractice” not to “come up with lines that are most favorable,” New York Public Interest Research Group executive director Blair Horner observed. “The temptation to do so will be great,” the Washington Post reported, given a rare convergence of forces that favor the left in New York. So, when the state’s redistricting commission reached a stalemate, the Democrat-led legislature eagerly took control and went about crafting as aggressive a Democratic gerrymander as possible.
The final product, which Gov. Hochul approved, was breathtaking in its audacity. Experts expected Albany’s new congressional map to cut New York’s Republican delegation in half. The new lines could provide Democrats with as many as three new seats in the next Congress, despite the state’s declining population. While New York’s map was among the boldest, the state was hardly alone in the effort to shore up Democratic prospects ahead of a challenging midterm election season. Even before New York submitted its new maps, gerrymanders in Democrat-led states like Illinois, Colorado, Washington, Maryland, and Virginia ensured that, as Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman observed, “there will actually be a few more Biden-won congressional districts after redistricting than there are now.”
Democratic audacity notwithstanding, the law is the law, and the primaries were imminent. Prospective candidates made their peace with the new facts on the ground and made plans to run in—even move into—the new districts they sought to represent. Sure, there would be perfunctory legal challenges to these new maps, including one in New York that argued the legislature had violated the language in a constitutional amendment adopted after a 2014 referendum establishing the redistricting commission in the first place. But these are states with high courts dominated by Democratic appointees. Surely, those judges would be in on the scheme. As it turns out, they weren’t.
On Wednesday, New York’s highest court struck down the state’s new congressional map—a “procedurally unconstitutional” hash that was “drawn with impermissible partisan purpose,” per Chief Judge Janet DiFiore’s decision. In a ruling that is not subject to appeal, the court summarily stripped New York’s lawmakers of the opportunity to try again, remanding the process to a “special master” tapped by a lower court earlier this month to develop alternative maps at the state legislative level. New lines will now have to be adopted and approved ahead of the state’s June 18 primary. If that proves too ambitious, the state’s primaries may have to be postponed until August.
New York is not the only state that tried and failed to seek unfair advantages for its majority party this cycle, and it’s not the only state to have been reprimanded by the courts as a result. Courts tossed Democratic gerrymanders in Illinois and Maryland. Republican maps were similarly dismissed in Kansas, North Carolina, and Ohio. But this disreputable balance favored Democrats. They had fabricated what FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich deemed a “national redistricting advantage,” and New York’s map was the jewel in the party’s crown. Rearguard actions have since whittled that advantage down to the point of near negligibility.
What Democrats should (but won’t) confront as a result of this debacle is the extent to which they bought into their own paranoid narratives. For over a decade, politics obsessives on the left convinced themselves that reapportionment was an antidemocratic scourge—at least, when Republicans control the process. Politicians, “especially Republicans,” manage to “cling to power” only as a result of the maps they draw for themselves, said Princeton University professor and redistricting reform activist Sam Wang. That logic compelled Democrats around the country to advocate for independent reappointment committees, which are now active in 21 states. But those committees didn’t deliver what Democratic activists really wanted: political dominance (which is perhaps why Wang is under investigation for allegedly “manipulating data to achieve the outcome he wanted” while he served as an adviser to New Jersey’s redistricting commission).
Democrats convinced themselves they had to play the same dirty pool they were sure Republicans played, even if that contravened state-level laws and constitutional provisions. Democratic lawmakers listened to their cheering section, at long last applying what Washington Post columnist Paul Waldman called “a ruthlessness Democratic voters often accuse their party of lacking.” Just look where it’s gotten them.