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Republicans allege redistricting contortion to keep Empire State blue

New York this week joined the ranks of states embroiled in litigation over congressional maps that have been redrawn to reflect new census numbers.

(CN) — A Republican who once held office in the New York Senate and sat on the state's Independent Redistricting Commission is representing 14 men and women in a new court battle over the ragged edges and strange shapes to come out of congressional map-making efforts.

Before-and-after renditions of several district maps litter about 20 pages of the petition filed Thursday night in Steuben County Supreme Court, which sits in the western part of the state atop the Pennsylvania border.

“Petitioners regularly vote for Republicans running for Congress and engage in campaign activity for Republicans running for Congress, so the gerrymandering of the congressional map dilutes the power of their votes and political action efforts,” the filing from Pepper Hamilton attorney Bennet Moskowitz in Manhattan and George Winner Jr.

A partner with Keyser, Maloney & Winner in Elmira, N.Y., Winner was a state assemblyman for decades before his five-year stint in the New York Senate. In a phone interview Friday, Winner said his clients are seeking relief in state court after the U.S. Supreme Court “basically washed its hands” of lawsuits having to do with gerrymandering a few years ago, making any federal lawsuit challenging gerrymandered districts a lost cause.

Their case hinges on redistricting procedures added to the New York Constitution just seven years ago and affirmed with a question posed to voters in 2021.

“These remedies are now new in the state courts and never been heard before," Winner said. "So this would be the first time that those constitutional prohibitions will be tested by the court."

When reached for comment, the office of Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie said the goal when drawing out the districts was to meet legal requirements and guarantee minority representation in accordance with the Voting Rights Act.

“Republicans threatened to sue long before the lines were even proposed,” said Mike Whyland, Heastie’s spokesperson, in a statement. “We are confident the maps will withstand any court challenge.”

New York is set to have 26 seats in Congress in 2023, the vast majority of them held by Democrats.

Winner's clients, led by Steuben County voter Tim Karkenrider, says the Democrats controlling the New York Legislature "brazenly enacted a congressional map that is undeniably politically gerrymandered in their party’s favor."

"As Dave Wasserman, a nonpartisan national elections expert correctly noted, these politicians’ congressional map is 'an
effective gerrymander,' designed so that Democrats will 'gain three seats and eliminate four Republican seats,' creating 'probably the biggest shift in the country,'" according to the 67-page petition.

From the governor on down to the New York State Legislative Task Force on Demographic Research and Reapportionment, a slew of state officials are named as respondents to the new filing.

The voters asked the court to declare the “cynical line-drawing” done by the legislature as unconstitutional, a move it had no authority to do, and draw out the districts itself. This should be done quickly, the petition warns, as any delay would threaten the integrity of future elections.

According to the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, the last time New York drew the lines of its congressional districts in 2011 — before it had the constitutional amendment on the books — lobbyists representing lawmakers jockeyed over the map’s lines but a court ultimately had a special master delineate the congressional districts.

New York joins a handful of other states turning to the courts to resolve questions over newly drawn district maps following the 2020 census. Just last month, the Ohio Supreme Court threw out legislative maps there for not passing constitutional muster. The Department of Justice meanwhile sued Texas over its maps in December, saying they diluted minority voters in the state.

Former state Senator Winner expects the matter will eventually make it to the New York Court of Appeals — the state’s highest court.

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