Op-Ed: Independent Citizens, Not Partisan Politicians, Must Tackle Redistricting

Helen Kioukis | September 18, 2018 | Opinion
A call for legislative redistricting in New Jersey to be taken out of political hands and given to an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission
Helen Kioukis

New Jersey’s legislators have the opportunity right now to prevent gerrymandering in our state by thoughtfully reforming our legislative redistricting process. Instead, they are introducing constitutional amendments that avoid addressing the main reason districts become gerrymandered in the first place: Politicians are the ones drawing the lines.

If the goal is to prevent politicians from choosing their voters, we can start by preventing politicians from sitting on the New Jersey Apportionment Commission — the group responsible for redrawing the legislative districts after each census. We need to end backroom deals and voter swaps that keep incumbents safe, and we need to introduce reforms that put the people of New Jersey first.

Nonpartisan organizations and grassroots groups have launched redistricting reform movements across the country that center the public’s voice and put an end to the manipulation of boundary lines favoring one group over another. The League of Women Voters and Fair Districts New Jersey, a coalition of advocacy and good-government groups, is leading this fight because New Jersey needs an independent, citizen-led redistricting commission to put the line-drawing power where it belongs — in the hands of voters.

New Jersey continues to see declining voter turnout year after year. Only 39 percent of registered voters turned out to vote in the 2017 gubernatorial election, an historic low. Limited participation and voter frustration exist when people feel that representatives are pre-chosen long before anyone casts a ballot in an election, or when there’s no serious opposition to incumbents who have become unresponsive to their constituents.

More public input a must

Our state also faces a different, unique challenge because of our odd-year legislative elections. Due to nominating petition deadlines and a June primary date, New Jersey only has a brief one- to two-month window of time between receiving the new census data and finalizing the new legislative map. This shortened timeframe results in a rushed process with limited public input and no opportunity for the public to review and submit comments on final drafts of new maps.

Reforms must include new requirements that give the public ample opportunity to provide testimonies to the commission and review maps before a final plan gets certified. Only through public input can the commission truly understand New Jersey’s communities of common interests, a key component in the development of fair maps.

Since redistricting occurs every ten years after the census, we have time before the 2020 count to address these issues and evaluate the fairness, transparency and impartiality of our legislative redistricting process. We must do better by enacting reforms that will protect communities of interest and voters for the next ten years and beyond.

Increasing voter participation, public input and transparency in the redistricting process would encourage civic engagement and strengthen our democracy. When ordinary voters are poring over the census data and gathering public comments from across the state to learn what’s most important to the people before the new maps are drafted, we will see the restoration of trust in the system. And when New Jerseyans go to the polls for the next election, they will know their votes are not wasted because their district lines have not been manipulated by party politics.

Elections would become more competitive

A natural byproduct of reforms that combine an independent commission with increased public participation would be more competitive elections. Ten years ago, Californians voted to establish an independent Citizens Redistricting Commission made up of five registered Republicans, five registered Democrats and four independent or unaffiliated voters to redraw the state’s legislative districts. The nonpartisan commission prioritized obtaining public input and held 23 hearings across the state prior to issuing its first drafts of maps. It held 11 more hearings afterward to collect more public comments.

According to a New York Times report on the research that evaluated the California Commission’s first map, the map was “far more competitive than its predecessor drawn by the Democrat-dominated state legislature.” Competitive districts increased from 5 percent to 19 percent without a mandate to apply specific calculations that determine competitiveness.

Any proposed amendments to the Constitution that continue to allow sitting elected officials and party insiders to redraw district lines gives us a process that remains ripe for manipulation. Our districts don’t need to look like a pair of headphones or cartoon characters or other long, meandering creatures to be “unfair.” When the legislative redistricting process controlled by political appointees lacks transparency, excludes the voices of unaffiliated and third-party voters and does not engage the public, there’s potential for harm. And when proposals put forward by legislators don’t address any of these issues, we’re left wondering: Do these proposals really have anything do with the will of the people?

The reality of gerrymandering

Gerrymandering is no longer a technical term we heard once in a high school history class. It appears in headline after headline as courts rule on the constitutionality of their states’ district lines; late-night variety shows dedicate segments to the practice; and people of all political persuasions list it as a main reason we find ourselves in an increasingly polarized nation.

The chance to meaningfully reform the legislative redistricting process comes only once a decade. Let’s not miss this opportunity for real change that empowers voters and restores trust in our democracy. Let’s work to establish an Independent Citizens Redistricting Commission and increase public participation to ensure our districts and our elections are competitive and fair.