Democratic lawmakers have largely watched from the sidelines as their proposal to revise the way the state redraws its legislative districts every 10 years has faced an onslaught of criticism from good-government groups, editorial boards and even a high-ranking official from former President Barack Obama’s administration.
But yesterday they fought back with a full-throated defense of the significant redistricting changes they want to write into the state constitution, including language that some say will open the door to gerrymandering, or the idea that legislative districts could be drawn up in a way that intentionally puts partisan interests over fair representation.
The sponsors of the legislation offered lengthy testimony during dueling public hearings in the State House yesterday and took on their critics in person, arguing their planned revision of what’s known as reapportionment would open up a process that currently is dominated by political insiders and governed by traditions that are not codified anywhere in law.
Legislative staffers also handed out factsheets before the hearing that attempted to answer, point-by-point, the criticisms many opponents have made, including the notion that the measure is being rushed through the Legislature over the holidays to ensure it gets as little attention as possible from the general public.
An opinion piece penned by Assembly sponsor Lou Greenwald (D-Camden) noted that an initial version of the proposal was introduced in 2015 and he went on to accuse opponents of using “dishonest rhetoric” as they’ve mobilized opposition. During the Senate’s public hearing, sponsor Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) also went on the offensive, accusing critics of not having read through the legislation carefully enough.
Scutari not happy to hear talk of gerrymandering’
“People have a tendency to react to legislation and constitutional amendments without reading it, without bothering to take the time to actually read what’s in it,” Scutari said. “I’ve heard these outlandish reactions, throwing around the word gerrymandering, which simply is not true.”
After the hearing ended, he also attempted to link opposition to the proposal to ongoing tension between Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders from his own party.
The Democrats’ full-court defense of the redistricting measure, which was introduced earlier this year, comes a few weeks after the legislation was put up for its only committee vote just days after the Thanksgiving holiday. While many bills get two committee reviews in each house before advancing, if the current legislative schedule holds, the proposed constitutional amendment would go before both the full Assembly and Senate on Monday. To get on the ballot in the fall, it only needs majority votes in both houses in two consecutive years
Among other changes, the redistricting proposal would expand the commission that is selected every 10 years by the chairs of the two major political parties to redraw the map for the state’s 40 legislative districts. Right now, that map has helped to deliver a state Senate where Democrats hold a 25-15 majority and a state Assembly where the Democratic majority is 54-26.
Under the proposed constitutional amendment, the chairs of the two parties — who typically have close ties to their most recent gubernatorial candidates — would only get to pick four members of a 13-member commission. (The current panel has 10 members plus a tie-breaker selected by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court).
It would give new power to Senate and Assembly leaders
The new panel would let the top legislative leaders in both the Assembly and Senate from each party select two members each, giving them such power for the first time ever. The chief justice would continue to pick a tie-breaking member, although that individual would be part of the conversations from the beginning instead of coming in at the very end to resolve any disputes. There would also be, for the first time ever, requirements that the commission have at least two members of the public and represent the “ethnic, gender and racial diversity” of the state.
Scutari yesterday called the proposal a “good-government piece of legislation” that would “guarantee for the first time the inclusion of public members.”
“To me, I don’t see how people could be opposed to that,” he said.
But the opponents contend the proposed structure of the commission would still give lawmakers an opportunity to dominate the panel, presenting an inherent conflict of interest — they could be playing a direct role in the formation of a map that ensures a district is drawn up in a way that protects their incumbency, or at least their party’s dominance.
Another big issue for the groups that have come out against the proposal is a new standard of election results that would be used to establish the benchmark for drawing up districts based on voter registration. Using turnout in national and statewide elections — that tend to bring more voters out to the polls than typical legislative years — the new standard would likely set a Democratic majority of 56 percent as the midpoint for drawing districts considered favorable to each party, rather than 50 percent. That means 10 so-called competitive districts that the map would be required to produce would have Democratic majorities of between 51 percent and 61 percent.
Behind the scenes
“There is one reason, and only one reason for this proposal,” Senate Minority Tom Kean Jr. (R-Union) said during his testimony. “To cement the Democratic legislative majorities in perpetuity.”
But there’s also been criticism from other Democrats, including Murphy, and several liberal groups that just flexed their muscle in last month’s congressional elections, helping Democrats pick up four seats.
Despite that criticism — and broader concerns that it could be undermining efforts Democrats have launched in other parts of the country to oppose attempted gerrymandering by Republicans — the sponsors pressed on with their defense of the measure yesterday and showed no signs of pulling it back, as they did in 2015.
Staffers tried to sell the measure’s various elements to reporters behind the scenes in the State House even as waves of people — some of whom said they had never before come to Trenton to testify — spoke out passionately against it.
But its backers said that in the end the constitutional amendment is on track to go on the ballot in 2019, which will give voters the final say.
“This amendment is about fairness and ensuring that the rules of engagement in redistricting are clear and will not be violated by personal or political agendas,” Greenwald said during his testimony.