Albany’s Map Quest

Will there be fair and competitive elections next year in New York?

Governor Cuomo promised, in essence, that there would be. During his successful campaign in 2010, Mr. Cuomo said he would fight for the creation of an independent commission that would be given power to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts, a process that unfolds every 10 years. Traditionally, both houses of the Legislature handle this task, and critics have charged that the legislators draw maps that insulate incumbents from serious challenges. Congressional incumbents and state legislators rarely are turned out of office in New York, the result, critics say, of unfair district maps.

Not surprisingly, legislative leaders haven’t jumped at the opportunity to turn over their map-making power to an independent commission. The result is a stalemate between Mr. Cuomo, who is attempting to make good on his promise, and both parties in the Legislature. Republicans and Democrats may not agree on everything, but leaders of both parties are of one mind when it comes to protecting incumbents.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver has proposed a compromise that has possibilities: he suggested an eight-person commission—four Democrats and four Republicans—chosen by legislative leaders but made up of citizens, not lawmakers. The compromise needs some refinement, including assurances that the nonlawmakers have genuine independence and aren’t simply stand-ins for legislative leaders.

But if no such assurances are possible, the courts may have to step in to supervise the process. That would be unfortunate, but it may also be necessary. Primary elections will be held in June; the lines must be drawn by then.

Lawmakers shouldn’t have the power to draw legislative maps. That’s the not-so-simple principle that needs to be at the heart of this process.