It’s essential to understand that the proposed constitutional amendment SCR-152/ACR-205 will change — not improve — how legislative reapportionment is conducted in our state. If approved and thereby beginning the process to amend the constitution, it would be a setback for New Jersey as a reform state in how it conducts redistricting. That is, not in the Legislature but by a commission composed of equal number of members of both parties.
The state does need new ways to have balanced districts to enhance competitiveness and reduce gerrymandering, to protect communities of interest, as well as how it engages the public in the process. But the measure before the Legislature in the coming week does not do so.
Here are some points to consider in rejecting the constitutional amendment:
1. It introduces a complicated formula based on partisan state-level voting patterns to create so-called fair or competitive districts, which creditable independent analysts say would do just the opposite. It would favor Democrats certainly in the short run but could also be used to favor Republicans. This prescriptive approach is too limited to produce fairer districts and does not belong in the New Jersey constitution.
2. It requires that four of the 13 members be incumbent legislators, a clear conflict of interest, according to New Jersey Legislative ethics rules. It also compromises the ability of the other nine members to engage candidly in its deliberations in their presence. In the past, sitting legislators were appointed to the commission, also a conflict of interest, but not required.
3. It requires the appointment of two public members but does not include a definition of what characterizes a public member, so the public has no standard by which to judge the appropriateness of that person for a role on the commission. (This is apparent in the congressional redistricting requirement for chair.)
4. It recommends the 13th member, the so-called tie breaker, be appointed by the Supreme Court at the beginning of the process rather when commission members can’t agree. But it does not designate that person as chair, an important position in the process, to try to reach consensus. The “odd” member does not select between two plans but rather works toward consensus (See congressional redistricting description for chair).
5. It requires a public engagement program, not currently mandated, but does so without clear details to ensure an effective process.
Alas, this flawed proposed amendment, hastily written and introduced, comes at a time of intense interest in redistricting, because of gerrymandering in New Jersey and more broadly in the country. What needs to be considered is how it can most effectively be done to create districts that respect citizen interests and encourages voter participation.
The rushed-through process that created SCR-152/ACR-205 in the past several weeks over a holiday period should be enough reason to reject this proposed amendment to the constitution. Changes and improvements in redistricting should follow a serious and well-organized process — for public engagement and for discussion in the Legislature.
Approving the proposed amendment would be another reason for widespread voter cynicism and distrust of elected representatives. Rejecting it would demonstrate that good government can prevail in New Jersey.