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Reforming NJ's Legislative Redistricting Process

After four decades, it's time for New Jersey to review how other states handle redistricting.

An earlier version of this story appeared in the Star Ledger's Perspective section on April 10.

New Jersey was the first state to create a commission to handle legislative redistricting after the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" rulings in the early 1960's. Developed by a special Constitutional Convention of 1966, it was designed as a reform measure to give the two major parties an equal say over the redistricting process, no matter who controlled the legislature and governorship. At the time, it represented the best redistricting reform in the nation. But there have been new approaches adopted in the past four decades, and given the controversy that accompanied the latest redistricting, it may be time to revive that spirit of reform.

True, the incumbent Democrats were happy: It was their map that was accepted, and only after numerous revisions, and predictably, the Republicans, whose map was not chosen, were unhappy. But there are other stakeholders in the redistricting process.

Leaders of the Hispanic, black and Asian communities want more opportunity for minority candidates. Good-government groups argue that more competitive districts would hold legislators accountable and give people a reason to vote. And grass-roots citizen activists like the Bayshore Tea Party pushed for a map that would keep counties and communities of interest together.

Reconciling these apparently opposing demands may be possible, if New Jersey can learn from the redistricting best practices adopted by other states. For instance, some states make a greater effort to take the process out of the hands of the political parties and empower interested citizens, who may be more willing to create competitive districts instead of protecting incumbents. A citizens commission would certainly give average voters more voice in the process.

Before taking a closer look at what could be, however, it's worthwhile to review the status quo.

Business as Usual

The five-member Democratic and Republican delegations to the New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Commission each drew up maps that fractured counties, protected incumbents, and avoided competition. These maps increased minority representation only when it served their purpose. The only thing that mattered was giving their party the best chance to win a majority of seats in the Senate and Assembly over the next 10 years.

Alan Rosenthal, the Rutgers professor who served as neutral tie-breaker, chose the Democratic map because it was "more conservative, less disruptive" and preserved the "continuity of representation" he values.

What "continuity of representation" on the new legislative map means is that 90 percent of incumbents will be reelected in November in easy races that do not require them to persuade voters that they deserve to return to Trenton. Only two districts (14th and 38th) are truly competitive, and only a handful of others (1st, 2nd, 4th and 7th) are even close.

Democrats hold just 24 of the 40 seats in the Senate, but so many are non-competitive that it is hard to identify five seats that could even be in play to give the GOP a chance to regain control.

"Party leaders don’t like competition, but competitive elections are in the people’s interest," longtime reformer Ingrid Reed said last month. (Reed serves as chair of NJ Spotlight's board of directors.) "Competitive elections increase turnout because people vote when they know their vote counts. They hold legislators responsible for their votes. It’s what democracy is supposed to be about."

New Jersey voters not only have little choice in reelecting legislators, but also in selecting them in the first place. Since the New Jersey Constitution was amended in 1988, many legislators are appointed to fill midterm vacancies by party county committees -- usually dominated by political bosses. They then run for "reelection" as incumbents. Competitive primary elections are rare because state law gives parties the power to decide which candidates run on the all-important party line.

That issue became a hot topic last week when the New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Coalition -- headed by Jerome Harris of the Black Issues Convention and Roberto Frugone of La Causa of NJ -- asked the Southern Coalition for Social Justice if the slating of white candidates on the party line in districts that minority candidates could win violates the U.S. Voting Rights Act. Left unstated was the fact that three of the most prominent examples of this party-slating practice are powerful Democratic Senators Brian Stack and Nick Sacco of Hudson County and Raymond Lesniak of Union County.

Another Angle

Political reform is never easy, but there are alternatives worth considering, based on best practices in other states: First, party and legislative leaders do not have to appoint 10 out of 11 redistricting commissioners. In California and Arizona, citizens interested in serving are interviewed by the impartial state auditor’s office or an appellate panel, which makes the appointments. California’s reform panel consists of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents – and three from each group must agree to approve a map.

Second, New Jersey’s redistricting law could be amended to set clear standards, as Arizona does, in giving priority to creating competitive districts where it does not interfere with ensuring minority representation consistent with the Voting Rights Act. Incumbency protection, or "continuity of representation," is actually barred in both California and Iowa.

Third, as one of only four states with legislative elections in odd-numbered years, New Jersey’s process is hampered by its tight deadline. It is difficult to have meaningful public involvement and draw a good map when Census figures do not arrive until late February and a new map is due in early April, which gives candidates only a week to decide whether to run and to gather petitions. Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex) introduced legislation to push back the primary date by three weeks in redistricting years, but pushing the primary back further to September, when New York holds its primary, would give groups like the Bayshore Tea Party or Legislative Redistricting Coalition time to build support for alternative proposals.

Finally, to give citizens the opportunity for meaningful public comment, redistricting commissions could release their maps to the public one week before voting on them. Hawaii's commission decided to redo its map after citizens objected to the number of "canoe districts" that jumped from island to island. New Jersey’s Congressional Redistricting Commission, which has months to create its map, could adopt this change by a simple vote.

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