State lawmakers' penchant for procrastination could leave up to the courts key decisions governing the 2012 elections.
In the coming months, the Legislature has to confront two vexing issues: redistricting and changes to the start of the election cycle to comply with federal law. However, lawmakers have yet to act on either one individually, and a convergence of the two will make it even more difficult to resolve either in the coming weeks.
With the 2010 Census completed, the Legislature must redraw boundaries for 62 Senate districts, 150 Assembly districts and 27 congressional seats for incumbents and potential challengers to know whom they will represent and where they will be campaigning in the 2012 fall elections. But in the past two redistricting plans, that has come at the last possible minute when the wrangling over political boundaries dragged on for months after census data became available. And then final action came only under court intervention.
The 1992 congressional redistricting plan finally approved by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Mario M. Cuomo that July was drafted by a panel of experts appointed by the state courts after the Legislature was unable to draw its own map. Federal courts also had to settle challenges to state Assembly districts.
History was set to repeat itself 10 years later when a Manhattan federal court was ready to impose a redistricting plan drawn by a court-appointed special master. It spurred the Legislature to finally adopt its own plan in June 2002. The delay, though, caused first the Legislature and then a federal judge to put off the start of the process for circulating nominating petitions, which officially kicks off the election season.
That scenario could be repeated again for a number of reasons. The Legislature and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo are at odds over the appointment of an independent commission to draw up a plan, and the state might not have as much leeway this cycle. The difficulties arriving at a redistricting plan will be compounded by the state's tardiness in complying with federal law. New York, like other states, has had since October 2009 to revise its schedule to meet the requirements of the Military and Overseas Voter Empowerment Act to mail ballots to military members 45 days before an election for federal races.
The state received a federal waiver to get through the 2010 election but that isn't expected for 2012 under the terms of a consent order with the Justice Department and a federal judge. A number of decisions yet to be made regarding a new election calendar could move the start of the petitioning process to early next year, possibly midwinter, when candidates will have to know where their district boundaries are.
While the Legislature has to tackle both politically sensitive issues simultaneously, it shows no sense of urgency before the session ends June 20. Without action, it will have to be called back into special session or put the decisions off until next year, raising the possibility that the courts might intervene. It is incumbent on Gov. Cuomo and the Legislature to prevent that by settling the issues in a timely manner so New Yorkers are governed through the legislative process rather than by judicial fiat.