The November election brought a marked change in the composition of the state Senate that will have significant implications for Upstate New York residents.
This post will seek to answer two questions: Why did Republicans lose control of the state Senate, and why does upstate have so little majority party representation?
Republicans had controlled the state Senate from 1976, with only a brief break in 2012 when Democrats gained a majority, and then splintered into two factions — one of which joined the Republicans to form a majority. But last year, voters decisively gave control to Democrats, who now hold 40 of 63 seats. The loss of Republican control will significantly reduce upstate’s influence in the Senate, since only three seats outside the New York City metropolitan area are held by majority Democrats.
For many years, the Republican Senate majority was composed of a coalition of upstate, Long Island and Hudson Valley members. By 2018, that coalition had essentially evaporated.
The regions that moved toward the Democratic Party — Long Island, New York City and the lower Hudson Valley — now have substantial Democratic representation. Two-thirds of senators from Long Island are Democrats, as are all but one senator each in New York City and the Lower Hudson Valley.
In Upstate New York, only three of 21 state senators are Democrats. Had the Senate’s legislative district apportionments proportionately represented voter party preferences, about half of upstate’s senators would be Democrats.
Differences in regional party affiliations
In New York City and in the lower Hudson Valley, Democrats and allied parties held commanding registration advantages in 2018. Of those affiliated with a political party, 87 percent were Democrats in New York City and 62 percent in the lower Hudson Valley. Long Island and Upstate New York voters are nearly evenly split between parties allied with Democrats on the left and Republicans on the right.
Within Upstate New York, there are significant differences in the political affiliations of voters in metropolitan areas and outside them. About one-third of upstate voters live outside metropolitan areas. Almost 60 percent of these non-metropolitan residents who are affiliated with a party are Republicans. But, residents of upstate’s larger metropolitan areas — Buffalo-Niagara Falls, Rochester, Albany-Schenectady-Troy and Syracuse — lean Democratic. Even the area’s smaller metropolitan areas — Utica-Rome and Binghamton — show nearly an even division between parties. (The Working Families and Green parties are included with the Democrats in this analysis. The Conservative Party is considered allied with the Republicans. The Independence Party was not included because its candidate affiliations have been inconsistent.)
Republican and Democratic voting strength in Upstate New York
This map of the 2016 presidential election result suggests that Republican voters (in red) dominate Upstate New York. Other than metropolitan counties like Albany, Onondaga, Monroe and Erie and a few counties in the Hudson Valley, most of Upstate New York voted for Donald Trump, the Republican candidate.
However,most of the Republican counties are sparsely populated, while the blue Democratic areas are population centers. And, the map is based on a single race. Voter preferences are more complex than can be captured in the results of a single face-off. Contests for Congress and governor show that voting in elections in Upstate New York is closely divided between Republicans and Democrats. Republicans had more votes than Democrats upstate in the 2016 election for president and the 2018 election for governor, but more votes were cast for Democrats in the 2012 presidential election and the 2018 U.S. Senate and House of Representatives elections.
Despite holding only three of upstate’s 21 state Senate seats, Democratic candidates have been highly competitive at the state and congressional levels. In 2018, Democrats won five of nine upstate congressional districts and 23 of 48 Assembly seats, as well as gaining more votes in the most recent U. S. Senate election. Why doesn’t the Senate represent upstate party preferences and election performance?
The impact of gerrymandering
Historically, the state Legislature has controlled the redistricting process, creating gerrymandered districts that favored the parties in control when redistricting took place. In 2010, Republicans controlled the state Senate, and Democrats controlled the Assembly.
For example, Senate District 50 in metropolitan Syracuse was carefully constructed to include suburban Republican votes, while excluding Democratic votes in the city of Syracuse. The seat was held for many years by Sen. John DeFrancisco until his retirement this year. In the 2018 election, another Republican, Bob Antonacci, was the victor.
Assembly District 101 is another example. The 150 mile-long, worm-like district carefully avoids nearby cities (with higher Democratic enrollment) while including parts of Oneida, Herkimer, Otsego, Delaware, Ulster and Orange counties. It is held by Republican Brian Miller.
Gerrymandering in the legislative apportionment process attempts to make one party waste as many votes as possible by concentrating voters in that party in overwhelmingly one-party districts, while spreading votes in the party benefiting from the gerrymander across districts in smaller but safe majorities.
In Upstate New York, state Senate districts were engineered to break up metropolitan areas into a series of districts that also contained large numbers of non-metropolitan residents, predominantly Republican voters. The result has been to weaken the ability of Democratic-leaning metropolitan area voters to elect representatives who shared their policy preferences.
An analysis by Jeremy Creelan and Allison Douglas of the Rockefeller Institute, “New Tools to Challenge Partisan Redistricting in New York State” measured the extent of partisan gerrymandering in New York and examined the reviews of other authors. It concluded that the extent of partisan gerrymandering in New York favoring Republicans was substantial, quoting Stanford University’s Simon Jackman that New York’s districts were “the most Republican favoring out of any state.”
Although state Senate districts were structured to disadvantage Democratic Party candidates by mixing Democratic majorities in metropolitan areas with rural, Republican voters, Democrats have not elected as many state Senators as would be expected from upstate Senate districts’ partisan makeups. Eight of 21 upstate Senate districts have more Democratic voters than Republicans, but only three districts are represented by Democratic state senators. Several factors may account for Democrats’ underperformance.
- The natural advantage conferred by incumbency is reinforced by gerrymandering. Last year, 18 of 21 Senate contests involved Republican incumbents. The Democrats didn’t even field a candidate in seven of these races. The three winning Democrats were incumbents. (A similar dynamic plays out in the Assembly. Eighteen of 48 Assembly contests were uncontested.)
- There is a large fall-off in voting between statewide candidates, and those for the State Senate — 15 percent of those who voted in the election for U. S. Senate did not vote for a state Senate candidate. This may reflect Democratic voters’ decision to abstain from voting when the race is uncontested or manifestly uncompetitive.
Viewed purely with “sectional” eyes, Upstate New York’s influence in Albany may have been greater because Republican gerrymandering granted upstate control of one of the Legislature’s two houses. But that power meant that the views of about half of upstate’s residents — Democratic voters who make up the majority of residents of metropolitan areas — were underrepresented in the state Legislature. The upstate Republican leadership of the Senate primarily represented the interests of conservative rural and suburban residents. Upstate city residents and people whose policy views corresponded with Democratic Party positions received little Senate attention.
With the Democratic Party in control of the Senate, upstate now has less majority party representation than it would have had if Senate districts had not been gerrymandered in favor of Republicans. This has weakened the region’s voice in the state capital.
To be sure, fairer legislative districts would not ensure particular outcomes in Senate races, because voters do not vote for parties in legislative elections any more than they do in elections for governor or the U.S. Senate. The large difference in the percentage of upstate voters who favored Andrew Cuomo (46 percent) against Republican Marcus Molinaro compared with the support given Kristin Gillibrand (57 percent) against Republican Chele Farley illustrates this point. In fact, in much of Upstate New York, party affiliations are relatively evenly divided, with electoral results in statewide elections favoring each party in different races.
Reapportionment after the 2020 Census
Reapportionment after the 2020 Census is likely to create legislative districts that more accurately represent the partisan preferences of New York residents than past apportionments. In 2012, New York voters passed a constitutional amendment that reforms the apportionment process and institutes new constitutional requirements for district representativeness. The process is a mixed bag, containing features that could work against accurate voter representation, and others that could work for it.
The amendment sets up a 10-member redistricting commission with four members appointed by each of the major parties’ legislative leaders plus two additional members selected by the eight. It also requires that any plan developed receive support from members nominated by both political parties.
The state Legislature must vote on the plan submitted by the commission without making any changes. If two successive plans from the commission fail to receive Legislative and gubernatorial approval, the Legislature is then empowered to present its own plan. As legislative approval is required, there will be an unnamed “third party” involved in the redistricting effort, the “party of the incumbency.” Logrolling and trading to preserve the prerogatives of incumbents and secure the required approvals may work against representation of voter preferences within legislative districts.
The constitutional amendment includes a prohibition against partisan gerrymandering: “(D)istricts shall not be drawn to discourage competition or for the purpose of favoring or disfavoring incumbents or other particular candidates or political parties.” This important provision is intended to prevent the redistricting commission from manipulating district boundaries to advantage particular parties and candidates, and creates a constitutional basis for a court challenge to a legislative districting plan that is gerrymandered.
Because of the statewide shift in voter preferences to the Democratic Party, Republicans are unlikely to retake control of the Senate, at least in the near future. But if the passage of the 2012 constitutional amendment improves representational equity, the senators who represent upstate will be more likely to represent the policy preferences of its residents.
John Bacheller, former head of the policy and research division of Empire State Development, is an author of Policy by Numbers, a blog that focuses on data and policy at the state level, with a focus on Upstate New York.