Sunday, March 4, 2012

Editorial: Stand firm for fair districts

For the fourth decade in a row, the creation of New York's congressional districts has landed in the federal courts. This time it might stay there, and that can only be for the good.

Unlike the three previous redistrictings, in which legislators compromised on their own maps at the last possible moment and forestalled implementation of the courts' drawings, there appears to be little chance to untangle this year's outlandish partisanship. The federal courts stepped into the process after it was clear the State Legislature's task force, charged with drawing congressional districts based on the 2010 Census, could not produce maps both the Republican-led Senate and Democratic-led Assembly could agree on.

The need to reduce the number of New York seats in Congress from 29 to 27 because of slow population growth is causing extraordinary wrangling, as each political party is under pressure in Washington to provide victories in the war to win the House of Representatives. There is a better way readily available.

A special master named by the three-judge federal panel to oversee the process has told all parties to use as their gold standard the nonpartisan maps drawn by the good-government group Common Cause NY. These debuted on UMAPNY, an interactive mapping site of Newsday.com, in late December.

The special master is also inviting members of the public to submit their own visions for districts in the same pioneering interactive format found on UMAPNY. In recognition of how transparent the maps can and should be, the court also wants the same detailed explanations of what factors and data support the choices made in drawing the lines Common Cause provided with its maps.

There is no one set of perfect maps. The court must assure that new districts respect communities of legitimate interest, such as counties, towns and minorities, rather than incumbents and parties. The proposed congressional maps sent to the court Thursday morning aren't acceptable, nor are the maps legislators have proposed for new State Senate and Assembly districts. The same special master has asked the State Legislature's task force, known as LATFOR, to tell the court on March 15 the status of the legislative maps, which are still under revision.

Meanwhile, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and others who claimed they would fight for independent redistricting this year have softened, saying they could accept partisan legislative maps, with some improvements, in return for both a constitutional amendment and a law that put a better process in place in the future. If they're going to sell that deal, they'll have to provide a lot of information very quickly -- on what the updated lines look like, and what the amendment and law say. If legislators pass these Senate and Assembly maps without respecting minority voters, Cuomo should veto them. Fairness, and possibly even federal voting rights law, demand creation of a Senate seat in Nassau to give minority voters real sway. The Senate insistence on creating a 63rd seat is fine -- but in New York City, where the population justifies it, not tucked upstate.

New York could still get fair political boundaries this year, but for it to happen, the special master, the judges and Cuomo are going to have to stand tall and make the difficult, proper decisions.

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