Democrats Push Controversial Redistricting Overhaul, Critics Push Back

Despite serious criticism, Democrats in state Senate press on with a contentious proposal to change the way legislative districts are redrawn

Sen. President Steve Sweeney, left, and Sen. Nicholas Scutari, sponsors of the controversial redistricting proposal
A controversial proposal to overhaul the way the state redraws legislative districts every 10 years advanced in Trenton yesterday after a key Senate committee voted along party lines — and despite concerns raised by good-government advocacy groups that it could unfairly stack the deck for majority Democrats.

The proposal — for a constitutional amendment that would change the makeup of what’s known as the legislative apportionment commission — was approved at the end of a marathon hearing during which critics wondered at the wisdom of such a proposal, particularly at this time.

Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, questioned whether it was wise for lawmakers to advance the proposal in an era when the public is already deeply divided along partisan lines and as public trust in government is “pretty fragile at this point in time.”

But the strongest criticism came from Helen Kioukis, a program associate with the League of Women Voters, who labeled the proposed changes “undemocratic.”

The hearing also contained a bizarre moment when some lawmakers’ votes were allowed to be recorded ahead of time despite a series of last-minute amendments being made; the lawmakers had apparently already left the State House. The proceedings were also delayed by some confusion over those amendments.

Would reduce governor’s influence

Yesterday’s vote in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee has set the stage for a public hearing on the proposed constitutional amendment, expected early next month. To get on the ballot next year, the proposal will have to be approved by a majority of lawmakers in separate votes before the end of this year and again sometime next year. It will not require a sign-off from Gov. Phil Murphy, a first-term Democrat whose influence over the redistricting process could be diminished by the proposed changes.

The sponsors of the constitutional amendment have argued the proposed changes would better reflect an evolving state electorate that has moved more to the left in recent years, while also making the process of redrawing the state’s 40 legislative districts more transparent.

Legislative redistricting in New Jersey currently happens every 10 years under a commission comprising an equal number of Democrats and Republicans who are selected by the chairmen of their state parties. A neutral tie-breaker is also appointed by the state Supreme Court chief justice to help redraw legislative district boundaries in accordance with the equal representation requirements established by the courts and the state constitution; this is generally considered to make the process more balanced than those used in other states.

The last time redistricting occurred, in 2011, the redistricting panel chose a legislative map that has ended up maintaining the Democrats’ advantage since then.

More power to legislative leaders

Among the changes being sought by the sponsors of the constitutional amendment is a proposal to give legislative leaders from both parties the chance for the first time to pick members of the commission. The measure, sponsored by Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) and Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union). also requires some of those commission members to come from the ranks of the Legislature itself.

Meanwhile, the party chairmen — who usually have closer ties to governors and gubernatorial candidates than lawmakers — would retain the right to pick two members of the commission. The tie-breaking member would continue to be selected by the chief justice.

There would also be requirements for three public hearings to be held at the beginning of the redistricting process to go over the latest U.S. Census results and for a redistricting website to be set up to explain the process and provide access to hearing transcripts and other materials. Changes to the stated goals of the redistricting process would also be written into the state constitution, including a proposal to “enhance competitiveness” by making sure that at least 10 of the 40 districts are drawn up in a way that ensures neither political party has a more than five percentage point advantage on paper, based on the most recent election results.

Among the concerns raised by those testifying before the committee yesterday was whether the language about competitiveness would make it easier for dozens of other districts to be drawn up in a way that leaves Republicans at a competitive disadvantage. That’s because the measure would allow at least 10 districts to be considered competitive after others would have already been drawn up with wider advantages for Democrats based on the prior election results.

Sweeney pushes back

Similar concerns were raised in 2015 when Democratic legislative leaders put forward but eventually dropped a prior version of the proposed changes.

“Our concern is the definition of competitiveness,” Ben Williams, coordinator of the nonpartisan Princeton Gerrymandering Project, said during yesterday’s hearing.

Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, also raised concerns about writing the proposed new language into the constitution.

Kioukis of the League of Women Voters said that “Voters should be choosing their politicians and not the other way around.”

Sponsors of the measure, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), pushed back on several occasions, suggesting the changes could improve the standing of Republicans, who right now hold relatively small minorities in both the Assembly and Senate.

“Is it supposed to be a 50-50 state when there’s a million more (registered Democrats)?” asked Sweeney.

Meanwhile, Murphy suggested, without getting into specifics, that the proposed changes could also undercut recent efforts to increase voter registration and participation in elections while also negatively impacting minority communities.

Governor: not so keen

“I think we, collectively, want to go one way, and this is going the other way,” Murphy said, following a news conference yesterday on his latest efforts to increase the state’s minimum wage.

To get on the November ballot, a proposed constitutional amendment must 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, the proposed constitutional amendment on redistricting will likely need to go the route of getting approval with the two simple majority votes.

Under that schedule, the proposed amendment will go before both houses of the Legislature for the first time in December following a public hearing that has yet to be scheduled. If approved with a simple majority, the proposal could then be posted again sometime in 2019.

But, thanks to the concerns raised during yesterday’s committee hearing about the last-minute amendments, it is unclear which version of the redistricting proposal will be the subject of next month’s expected public hearing.

O’Scanlon: ‘It’s not good policy’

Majority Democrats initially brushed off Republicans’ concerns about whether it was proper to advance the version of the measure that was approved yesterday with the votes of some lawmakers that were recorded before new amendments were read into the official record.

“It’s not good policy,” said Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth), one of the lawmakers who stayed until the end.

The Democrats later announced that they were immediately introducing a new version of the proposed constitutional amendment incorporating all the amendments. That version would be readied for a public hearing in early December, they said.

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