New Jersey lawmakers are rushing to vote on a proposed constitutional amendment that would revamp the way the state’s legislative districts are drawn. Legislative leaders say the changes are needed to give guidance to the commission on what an acceptable map is. But opponents, including former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, say the proposed plan could give Democrats a built-in advantage in future elections — and further politicize the state’s redistricting commission.
The effort to change the redistricting process comes in the wake of a midterm election in which voters overwhelmingly supported democracy reforms, including for redistricting. New Jersey, like all states, redraws its legislative districts every 10 years, following the U.S. census.
The New Jersey Senate and Assembly both held hearings for the redistricting plan on Thursday. Democrats have also scheduled a vote on the amendment for Monday, the final day of business in the Legislature this year. They are expected to bring up a vote again in January to satisfy a two-year requirement to let voters weigh in on the amendment in November 2019.
The proposed redistricting process would prioritize political outcomes
The proposal under consideration would significantly change how New Jersey’s redistricting commission is assembled. The state’s current system includes a 10-person redistricting commission, with an equal number of Republican and Democratic appointees. In addition, the state’s Chief Justice appoints a tie-breaking commissioner — a role that the Brennan Center and others have criticized for its disproportionate influence.
The proposed new system would expand the commission to 13 total members and require the inclusion of state legislators. However, the tie-breaking commissioner would continue to wield outsized influence.
More importantly, the proposal requires the commission to establish legislative districts that are “competitive” based on a formula that ties the redistricting process to past election results. In other words, the formula would enable a process that prioritizes partisan outcomes over other considerations. The Democrats, who have made gains in New Jersey elections in recent years, could use this formula to guarantee a partisan advantage in the Legislature for years to come.
The Brennan Center has warned that the proposal also could hurt communities of color. One common way that parties rig political maps in their favor is by packing or cracking people of color — cramming them into a small number of heavily minority districts, or spreading them out to dilute their influence — in order to tweak how districts perform politically. Under the proposed plan, legislators could exploit communities of color in the redistricting process to achieve specific political outcomes.
“Redistricting shouldn’t reduce race to a partisan label, and it shouldn’t draw maps that produce certain political outcomes,” said Yurij Rudensky, counsel with the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. “Redistricting should be a community-driven process. It should preserve the interests of communities of color.”
Redistricting commissions should be independent and enable compromise
Redistricting commissions have the potential to help make that process fairer and more transparent — but only if they are independent and allow room for compromise. New Jersey’s redistricting system falls short by continuing to give outsized control to a tie-breaking commissioner.
A truly effective redistricting commission would incorporate an independent selection process. And it would incentivize negotiation and compromise, instead of allowing one tiebreaker to decide which party to side with.
The proposed system in New Jersey fails to achieve either of those criteria — while also incentivizing commissioners to use maps to achieve partisan outcomes at the expense of communities of color.
The Brennan Center submitted testimony urging the New Jersey Legislature to oppose Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 43.