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For the next two weeks, one of the most powerful people in politics is a professor whose professional life has been devoted to studying demographics, political behavior, and mapping.
Jonathan Cervas has until May 20 to redraw New York’s congressional and state Senate district lines, translating complex data into maps that will pass constitutional muster and stand for a decade. The stakes are high, and for a little added pressure, this is the first time he’s in charge as the court-appointed special master rather than working as an assistant or consultant.
His choices will steer the Supreme Court in Steuben County as it decides how easy it will be for Republicans to win congressional races in New York, and therefore how likely it will be for the GOP to take control of the U.S. House. The majority party will flip if there’s a net change of five seats out of 435.
“This is a big state to do it for the first time solo,” said Michael Li, senior counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “It’s really demographically complicated.”
Throughout this redistricting cycle, Democrats counted on New York to offset Republican gerrymanders elsewhere. The state Legislature crafted lines that would have given Democratic candidates an advantage in as many as 22 of the 26 new congressional districts. That is, until the state’s highest court threw out the map and called for a neutral special master to take over.
Cervas, 37, who has worked on line-redrawing cases in Utah, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania, got the job.
“My experience has prepared me well for this job, and the court has confidence in my resume,” Cervas said in an emailed statement.
In his public debut on May 6 as head of the team he put together for New York, Cervas appeared to listen intently as members of the public and attorneys for the governor and Democratic majority leaders laid out their views in a public hearing along with presentations in which the Republicans who brought the initial case described their redistricting wish lists.
He offered no indication about his views on what was said.
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said she would have preferred a citizens commission over a special master. Despite that, “the background of this particular special master, his experience in other states indicates that we think he is a reasonable choice,” she said.
A native of Pittsburgh, Pa., Cervas is a postdoctoral fellow at the Carnegie Mellon University Institute for Politics and Strategy, where this fall he’ll teach a graduate seminar on American political institutions and behavior. He has done research on the Electoral College, given talks on gerrymandering, and has been an assistant to redistricting guru Bernard Grofman at the University of California, Irvine.
Grofman, who’s well-known in redistricting circles, declined to comment on Cervas, saying he had spoken with the judge in the case, and “might become a consultant of some type.”
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New York Law School’s Jeffrey M. Wice, who knows Cervas through his participation in National Conference of State Legislatures panels, described the New York special master as unbiased.
“Jonathan Cervas is a well-respected academic who’s been known across the country for his nonpartisan, quality work,” he said. “He does not work for any partisan interests.”
Cervas was hired by state Supreme Court Justice Patrick F. McAllister, a Republican. “Regardless of Judge McAllister’s background, he’s selected someone with impeccable credentials,” said Wice, adjunct professor and senior fellow at the New York Census and Redistricting Institute.
Cervas earned his PhD in political science from the University of California, Irvine, and his bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
As an assistant to federal court special master Grofman, he was involved in drawing maps in Utah in 2017, Virginia in 2018–19, and in Georgia in 2019–20, according to his resume. He also was a research associate with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project from 2018 to 2021.
Bryan L. Sells, an attorney for Mathis Kearse Wright Jr. in Wright v. Sumter County Board of Elections in Georgia, said Grofman’s name was on the report, but he remembers Cervas doing a lot of the work. The county lines had to be redrawn after a federal court ruled the at-large voting for the county’s public education school board members was discriminatory and disproportionately favored White over Black candidates.
Sells described Cervas as a “fantastic pick” for redrawing district lines.
“He’s someone that I think all sides of the case should be able to get behind and respect,” Sells said. “He, I think, has a pretty deep understanding of the legal parameters and other appropriate and inappropriate parameters when it comes to drawing districts.”
In July 2021, Cervas was hired to assist Pennsylvania’s five-person Legislative Reapportionment Commission in redrawing the state’s House of Representatives and Senate seats.
Commission chair Mark A. Nordenberg recalled that Cervas came highly recommended by Grofman, and proved himself a “very good listener,” who took the concerns of citizens who testified into consideration and seemed unconcerned about the partisan implications of the maps.
“Jonathan had levels of insight because he was more skilled at the mapping process than any of the rest of us were,” he said.
That’s not to say he turned everyone into a fan. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff (R) voted against the Cervas-drawn House map, saying it diluted minority voting power and helped incumbent Democrats.
Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for Benninghoff, noted that the redistricting team worked at the direction of the chairman who hired Cervas. “It’s hard to say whether he was just carrying out instructions from the chairman or whether he was working on his own,” Gottesman said.
In general, special masters tend to be reluctant to make radical changes, Li said.
In this redistricting cycle, special masters drew the congressional lines in Connecticut, North Carolina, and Virginia. New York used a special master last time around as well.
“What we’ve seen is, special masters around the country tend to draw very fair maps,” Li said. And as an extension of the court, “If he showed favoritism, he would never get hired again.”
“I think he’s going to be an honest broker in this,” Li said.
The case is Harkenrider v. Hochul, N.Y., Decision 4/27/22.
To contact the reporter on this story: Keshia Clukey in Albany, N.Y. at email@example.com