New York Just Cost Democrats Their Big Redistricting Advantage

New York Just Cost Democrats Their Big Redistricting Advantage

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch — and don’t count your congressional districts before all the redistricting lawsuits are finished.

On Wednesday, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that the congressional map New York Democrats enacted back in February was a partisan gerrymander that violated the state constitution and tossed it to the curb. The decision was a huge blow to Democrats, who until recently looked like they had gained enough seats nationally in redistricting to almost eliminate the Republican bias in the House of Representatives. But with the invalidation of New York’s map, as well as Florida’s recent passage of a congressional map that heavily favors the GOP,1 the takeaways from the 2021-22 redistricting cycle are no longer so straightforward.

That’s because much of Democrats’ national redistricting advantage rested on their gerrymander in New York. The now-invalidated map included 20 seats with a FiveThirtyEight partisan lean2 of D+5 or bluer and only four seats with a partisan lean of R+5 or redder. It also included two swing seats, but even those had slight Democratic leans (D+3 and D+4).

In other words, all else being equal, we’d have expected Democrats to win 22 of New York’s 26 House seats (85 percent) under the map. But that’s way out of proportion with how New York usually votes; for instance, President Biden got just 61 percent of the vote there in 2020.

There are currently 19 Democrats and eight Republicans in New York’s congressional delegation, so this map likely would have resulted in Democrats gaining three House seats in the 2022 election and Republicans losing four, from just New York alone. (The map converted the 1st and 11th districts from light red to light blue, and it also moved the swing district currently held by Republican Rep. John Katko more firmly into Democratic territory. It also chose a Republican-held seat upstate as the district New York would have to lose as a result of its relatively sluggish population growth in the 2020 census.)3

Those heady gains and losses were the foundation for the big national gains Democrats had run up about a month ago. As of March 30, redistricting had added 11 districts to the “Democratic-leaning” (D+5 or bluer) column nationally (compared with the maps that were in place in 2020) and subtracted six districts from the “Republican-leaning” column (R+5 or redder). Today, though, Democrats are up only seven districts, and Republicans are no longer down at all — they’ve actually added one Republican-leaning seat. 

If that were to hold — and, given what we’ve learned, we should not assume it will — Democrats would still chip away at the House’s Republican bias (the tipping-point House district in 2020 was almost 5 percentage points redder than the nation as a whole), but not by as much as previously expected.

However, thanks to Democrats’ strong performance in the previous two House elections (2018 and 2020), many of those newly Democratic-leaning seats were (and are) already held by Democrats. So if all you’re interested in is the outcome of the 2022 election, it’s useful to also consider how many seats redistricting puts each party in a position to flip. Back in March, Democrats didn’t have as large of an advantage by this metric, but they were still doing better than Republicans: I estimated at the time that redistricting would net Democrats around two seats in the midterms, while it would lead to a net loss of around three or four seats for Republicans (this was without considering the Republican-leaning national political environment). Now, however, Republicans clearly have the advantage on this score. I estimate that redistricting currently positions Republicans for a net gain of around four or five House seats and Democrats for a net loss of about four, based on the maps as they stand now.

So depending on whether you measure by partisan lean alone or factor in which party currently holds each seat, you get a different answer for which party has benefited from redistricting this cycle. But don’t tie yourself up in too many knots trying to pick a winner. If there is one thing that we’ve learned this cycle, it’s that nothing is final until the last map is passed and the last lawsuit is resolved. There are still congressional maps that could get struck down in court, like Florida’s. And there are still states that have yet to finalize a map — like, oh yeah, New York!

In its decision, the New York Court of Appeals endorsed the idea that a neutral special master — essentially, an expert in drawing political maps — should draw New York’s next congressional map. That would presumably lead to a relatively fair map, but the details and exact partisan breakdown are, of course, still a mystery; Democrats could still gain seats from New York’s map when all is said and done (just not as many as from their gerrymander). As a reminder, we analyze and track newly proposed maps in real time on our redistricting tracker, so keep an eye on its New York page for the latest developments.

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