Guest Post: Monroe County’s Redistricting Mess

This blog is a guest post from Monroe County Legislator Rachel Barnhart

I am a Monroe County Legislator, a Democrat and a longtime activist for good government. Like many of you, I hate gerrymandering, the manipulation of voting district lines to help parties and candidates.

That’s why I’m supporting an ongoing lawsuit against the recently-enacted Monroe County Legislature map. My affidavit tells a sordid, factual story of corruption in drawing the lines to protect incumbents and both political parties. 

But you don’t have to take my word for it. There’s proof that the Monroe County map is a raw deal for voters. A renown redistricting expert, Dr. Jeanne Clelland, found a 99.87% chance that the map was drawn to protect incumbents. All legislators running for reelection were placed in single-member districts, except for one incumbent pair that was deliberately drawn together so that each could have a more favorable district (one has to move if reelected). 

Furthermore, the Monroe County map functionally granted the Republican Party 48% of seats, despite only having 25% percent of registered voters.  Republican registration is expected to further decline over the next decade this map will be in effect.

Monroe County presents a perfect opportunity to strike a blow to gerrymandering, and the lawsuit could have far-reaching implications for the drawing of local, state and federal lines.

Let me walk you through the case. A 2014 amendment introduced the following language to the state constitution regarding the redrawing of Congressional, and State Legislative district lines: (a) each district must be of equal population; (b) districts shall not be drawn to deny the voting rights of any minority group; (c) districts shall be made of contiguous territory; (d) districts shall be as compact in form as possible; (e) districts shall not be drawn to favor or disfavor any particular political party, candidate, or incumbents; and (f) districts are to be drawn to promote orderly and efficient elections.

In 2021, the state legislature extended those same provisions to counties under Municipal Home Rule Law 34, subdivision 4.  Upon signing the law, Governor Hochul stated that “All too often, county governments have attempted to manipulate redistricting to the political advantage of the party in power.”  She said the legislation would “ensure an end to that practice and promote fair and non-partisan drawing of lines.”

In Rucho v. Common Cause, the U.S. Supreme Court stated that partisan gerrymandering claims present political questions beyond the reach of the federal courts.  The court has also signaled its intention to abandon the protections against racial discrimination in redistricting included in the federal Voting Rights Act.  Thus, the enforcement of equitable redistricting principals has been left to the states.

While it’s great that New York passed new redistricting laws to restrain the worst instincts of politicians, there’s no way to make sure the law is working unless the courts create standards. For example, how are we supposed to comply with the law? Monroe County (laughably) is arguing in court that the map-drawers “balanced” all rules. A court needs to figure out what compliance looks like.

Our case will determine the standards that legislative bodies must use to draw federal, state, and local legislative district lines. Specifically, the court must create a method to evaluate whether districts have been drawn to favor or disfavor any particular political party, candidate, and determine what evidence plaintiffs must bring to the table to prove their case.

(Recent litigation has dealt with procedural matters with regards to the functioning of the New York Independent Redistricting Commission, not with these substantive issues.)

This case presents an opportunity for New York courts to explicitly ban partisanship and incumbency protection.  We will assert that the Monroe County legislative redistricting plan violates both the United States and New York State constitutions.  We will show that Freedom of Association provisions of the First Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause prohibit favoring one political party over another, and incumbency protection. The New York State Constitution contains similar language.

The case is before a State Supreme Court judge (the fifth to be assigned the case, as the previous four all had to recuse themselves for their political ties). Arguments on Monroe County’s motion to dismiss will be in June. We may appeal the judge’s denial of our request for a temporary restraining order before then. We’ll be outgunned, as our attorney, one of the few who wasn’t politically compromised and was willing to take this case, is a solo practitioner. Powerful interests will use heavy-hitters and lots of money to stop us. But this fight is important, and has huge implications for voters in New York State.