Every decade, New Jersey’s legislative districts are redrawn using the latest federal census data to ensure each district is about the same size. It’s usually a tedious process, closely watched by legislative insiders, political junkies and reporters, but few others.
But a last-minute bid to revamp that legislative redistricting process by Democrats who control the state Legislature has become one of the hottest issues in the State House in the waning days of the current legislative session, with a contentious debate and the first votes in both full houses of the Legislature now scheduled for Monday.
And it is likely to remain a hot issue for much of 2016 because sponsors of the redistricting proposal are ultimately hoping to put the issue before voters later this year in form of a ballot question seeking to amend the state constitution to make the changes permanent.
Sponsors of the proposed amendment contend the changes will make more of the state’s 40 legislative districts competitive, encouraging more voters to participate in what are typically low-turnout legislative elections.
While only a handful of legislative districts are truly up for grabs in New Jersey, the proposal would require that at least 25 percent would be considered “competitive” going forward. (Last year’s Assembly elections saw historic low turnout in New Jersey, as Democrats picked up four additional seats.
The sponsors also argue that other proposed changes – including mandatory public hearings and the creation of a redistricting website — will make the process more transparent and better protect it against the kind of gerrymandering that has plagued Congress in recent decades.
The proposal also seeks to add a member to a special redistricting commission that draws up the new map every decade, increasing membership from 10 to 11 to make it easier to break ties. It would also give legislative leaders the chance for the first time to pick members of the commission, but at the same time bar them from personally serving on the panel. And it would set new guidelines for determining the makeup of each district using results from recent elections.
“New Jersey residents deserve a redistricting process that is fair and ensures those who are elected reflect the residents of the state,” said Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), sponsor of the proposed amendment. “This proposal would do that by requiring changes that allow for greater public input and making the proceedings of the redistricting commission more open and transparent.”
But opponents counter that the proposed changes — rolled out for the first time by Democratic leadership just a month ago — are part of a power grab by Democrats who currently control both houses of the Legislature and want to keep it that way.
The last time redistricting occurred, in 2011, the panel chose a legislative map design that has ended up maintaining the Democrats’ advantage since then.
The opponents also say that the new standards for redistricting could end up disenfranchising large swaths of New Jersey voters because districts in the remaining 75 percent that would be considered “uncompetitive” could be configured to protect current incumbents, many of whom are Democrats.
And they question why the proposal is being rushed through the Legislature now when the next redistricting won’t occur until 2021.
In fact, New Jersey’s decades-old redistricting system – which uses a neutral member appointed by the state Supreme Court’s chief justice to break ties — has in the past been held up as an example for other states because it has, among other things, helped to protect the representation of minorities in the Legislature.
“The Democratic majority is doing everything in its power to hide this process from the voters and rush this through,” said Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean. Jr. (R-Union).
To get on the November ballot, a proposed constitutional amendment has to pass both houses of the Legislature with a simple majority in two consecutive legislative sessions or receive supermajority approval in one legislative session. Since Democrats don’t hold a supermajority in either house right now, the proposed constitutional amendment to revamp the redistricting process will likely need to go the route of getting approval with two simple majority votes.
Under that schedule, the proposed amendment will go before both houses of Legislature for the first time on Monday, the final full day of the current legislative session. If approved with a simple majority, the proposal could then be posted again sometime during the next legislative session, which begins on Tuesday, before going on the ballot this fall.
Proposed constitutional amendments in New Jersey also require a public hearing, which occurred yesterday in the State House for the amendment to revamp the redistricting process and several others that Democrats are also pushing in the final days of the legislative session.
In all, five different public hearings on proposed ballot questions were held at the State House yesterday.
The others included an amendment that would lock the state into making billions of dollars in payments to shore up the grossly underfunded public-employee pension system; an amendment seeking to dedicate more revenue from fuel taxes to the state Transportation Trust Fund, and two competing amendments that would allow expansion of casino gambling outside of Atlantic City.
But it was the proposed amendment seeking to change the redistricting process that drew the hottest testimony, with most speaking out against it, including Patrick Murray, director of Monmouth University’s Polling Institute.
He called for a more deliberative process than the one lawmakers are currently following. And he said the language in the proposed ballot question that seems to improve the degree of competitiveness that could be struck in legislative districts is misleading, and that the new proposed standards could be easily manipulated to one party’s advantage.
“This is not what (voters) think the word competitive means,” Murray said.
Later, when asked by Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R-Bergen) why he was speaking out against the proposed amendment, Murray responded: “I call foul when I see it. This does not serve the good of the public.”
The amendment was also opposed by Al Frech, co-founder of Citizens for Positive Change, which he described as a grass-roots advocacy group. He asked why no experts were brought in by sponsors during the public hearing to fully explain the merits of the proposal. And Frech offered some advice to voters who don’t fully understand the question if it ultimately ends up on the November ballot.
“If you’re confused, vote no,” he said.
Tom Bracken, president and chief executive of the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce, also questioned why legislative leaders were able to fast-track the proposed changes to the redistricting process when solutions to other high-profile issues, like high taxes, remain backlogged.
“It’s just appalling to us that this popped up at the very last minute with very little vetting,” Bracken said.
But Assemblyman John McKeon (D-Essex) took on that issue during the hearing, saying ultimately voters will likely get to have the final say.
“The public gets to vote on this,” said McKeon, a primary sponsor of the amendment. “This is going to the ballot.”
And in a statement he released after the hearing, he reemphasized the need to open up the redistricting process.
“This change will excise politics from the redistricting process and give the public more of a say in how their communities are represented,” McKeon said.