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Analysis

New Jersey’s Flawed Redistricting Measure

The proposed amendment could further politicize the state’s redistricting commission and hurt communities of color

December 14, 2018

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.

(Image: BCJ/Getty/Shut­ter­stock)