New Jersey’s Democratic leaders are pushing ahead their controversial constitutional amendment to change the way the state’s legislative districts are redrawn every 10 years, even as some of the party’s most ardent supporters are vowing to fight a proposal that they consider undemocratic.
The proposal is embodied in three concurrent resolutions SCR-43, SCR-152, and ACR-205 scheduled for required public hearing next Thursday in separate Senate and Assembly committees. The leaders of the Senate and Assembly plan to call for votes in their houses on December 17, the last session scheduled before the end of the year.
With comfortable majorities in both houses, Democrats may easily pass this legislation, which many see as favoring the Democratic party in the 2021 redistricting process. But a number of activists who have worked and canvassed for Democrats are vowing to use their skills and their networks to defeat the amendment if it gets placed on the 2019 ballot.
“We canvassed hard in congressional districts across the state, resulting in the blue wave,” said Sue Altman of South Jersey Progressive Women for Change, who spoke at a press conference outside Newark City Hall on Wednesday. About a dozen activists stood together to condemn the proposal that lawmakers made public less than two weeks ago, but they said they represent a broader coalition of 130 groups, who have sent letters to lawmakers opposing the plan.
“We refuse to sit by and watch the Democratic party bosses further consolidate their power to have the ultimate leverage when it comes time to whip important votes,” Altman said, “… South Jersey Women for Progressive Change pledges to use our large and effective social media reach, our impassioned volunteer network, our coalition across New Jersey that we have built on the backs of passionate volunteers, our extensive email list, and all the energy of 8,000 angry women to fight this. Frankly we are embarrassed and annoyed that this type of legislation originated in South Jersey and we are well prepared to fight relentlessly against it.”
Every 10 years
The measure seeks to amend the state constitution to change the membership of the New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission that meets once every 10 years. It’s up to the commission to redraw legislative district boundaries to reflect population shifts based on the results of the annual U.S. census. Each district must contain roughly the same number of people.
Among its most controversial changes, the proposal would give legislative leaders, including co-sponsor and Sen. President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester), the ability to appoint commission members, require four members be lawmakers, and set requirements for drawing districts based on party affiliation and recent statewide election results. There are also provisions for greater public input and a requirement that 10 of 40 districts be considered competitive for either party.
Virtually all of those who have weighed in on the measure, including good-government organizations, political observers and Democratic activists, say it is a recipe for gerrymandering districts to favor Democrats, who hold an advantage of nearly 1 million registered voters over Republicans. The Democrats are still outnumbered by almost 200,000 unaffiliated voters.
‘Slippery slope toward gerrymandering’
“This is an unfair power grab by New Jersey legislators trying to make changes to our constitution that experts across the country and in New Jersey agree is a slippery slope toward gerrymandering,” said Analilia Mejia, the director of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance who has served as a Democratic pundit on news shows in the state. “We do not have to cheat to win. It is unfair and unjust to voters to create a system in which legislators have more power to cherry pick their voters … We demand fair districts be drawn that take into consideration communities of interest.”
Saily Avelenda, director of NJ 11th for Change, said the legislative proposal runs counter to everything the group fought for over the past two years. The organization formed after the 2016 presidential election was instrumental in flipping the 11th Congressional District in North Jersey from red to blue last month. Democrat Mikie Sherrill easily won the seat in a district that was long a Republican bastion by 15 points.
“We can’t just settle for something that solidifies power at the cost of all those things that we hold dear in our democracy,” Avelenda said. “It’s why we fought at NJ 11th for Change for these last two year. The people of New Jersey are just fed up … We are tired of politicians who legislate to protect their positions and ignore the people that they were there to represent. We spoke up in 2017 and we roared in 2018 and we will continue to stand up for good government, no matter who is trying to take that away from us.”
No guaranteed majority
While it is almost universally considered to favor Democrats in the next round of redistricting, the measure may not give them a guaranteed majority in Trenton in the coming decade.
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project used the parameters of the legislation and election data to analyze how it might be used to redraw district boundaries and found “the legislation still allows either party, Republican or Democrat, to commit a gerrymander,” wrote Sam Wang, a Princeton University professor and member of the project team, in a website post on Wednesday.
Using a 57 percent Democratic statewide vote as the basis for drawing districts with the measure’s requirements, the project team was able to create a scenario that would split the 40 districts evenly between the two parties, thus benefitting Republicans who have been in the minority in both houses since 2004. A second scenario would give Democrats 28 districts — three more than the party currently holds in the Senate — and Republicans only 12.
“How can this be? It has to do with a weird definition of competitiveness, and limits on partisanship that don’t entirely make sense given New Jersey’s demographics,” Wang wrote.
Because the proposed commission’s membership would be split between Democrats and Republicans, it would be up to one member appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court to side with one of the party’s maps. There is no guarantee that member would choose the Democrats’ district preference.
Racing against the clock
The measures are being rushed through both houses of the Legislature before the end of the year because they will have to pass both houses by simple majorities two years in a row in order to get on the next ballot, in November 2019. Gov. Phil Murphy does not have any official say on the proposals, embodied in what are called concurrent resolutions, although he already has said he has concerns about the effort.
Confusion over the vote by the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee last week to release the proposal — some of those who voted for it were not present when the vote was called, having left “yes” votes on record that they cast before the bill was being amended in committee — has led to two Senate versions of the bill to be posted for the required public hearing.
Both SCR-43 and SCR-152 are scheduled to be heard next Thursday, December 13, at 11 a.m., before the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee in Trenton. At the same time in another room in the State House Annex, the Assembly Judiciary Committee will hold a hearing on ACR-205. The Assembly version of the bill, which was not even referred to an Assembly committee for a vote, was sent directly to the floor of both houses of the Legislature.
“I think they realize it is an unfair overreach, otherwise they would not have introduced this proposal the Friday after Thanksgiving. They wouldn’t be attempting to ram it through within a couple of weeks while many of us are engaged in our families and our holidays,” Mejia said. “If this was really a priority to effect real comprehensive and fair change, they could have started this process in an open way in January.”