“Gerrymandering,” “voter suppression” and “undemocratic” were the most common phrases used by opponents in testifying against Democrats’ controversial legislation to revamp the way New Jersey redraws legislative district boundaries during simultaneous public hearings in Trenton on Thursday.
Not one of roughly 100 activists, academics, and citizens relatively new to political engagement who spoke or signed in to express an opinion in the Assembly and Senate hearings favored the proposal embodied in three identical measures — SCR-43, SCR-152, and ACR-205. That’s especially noteworthy because nearly all the grassroots activists lean Democratic.
Their greatest complaints are that the resolution would write into the state constitution mandates that at least four lawmakers serve on the NJ Legislative Apportionment Commission and that they use a formula that would give the Democratic party an edge in most newly drawn districts.
“Fast-tracking this gerrymandering proposed legislation is wrong,” said Helen Kioukis, who heads the League of Women Voters of New Jersey’s Fair Districts New Jersey effort, at a rally of about 50 people opposing the changes prior to the legislative hearings. “To be clear, gerrymandering is voter suppression. Also, holding two public hearings at the same time to further silence our voices is wrong. And this is not what democracy should look like.”
The decision by Democratic leaders to hold a hearing in each house at the same time in different locations angered many of those who testified and caused problems for several who were called to testify in one house while they were three floors away in the other.
Opponents span the political spectrum
This was the case for Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, who missed his call by the Assembly Judiciary Committee while he was downstairs in the Senate hearing room. When he returned, he joined a subsequent panel, but was chided following his testimony by Committee Chairwoman Annette Quijano (D-Union) for speaking when he had not been called.
“Then why are you holding two hearings at the same time?” yelled out David Pringle, a representative of Clean Water Action, from the audience.
Some of those who spoke at the hearings, which each lasted about three hours, are familiar faces in the State House, but more were relatively new political activists like Uyen “Winn” Khuong, a Vietnamese immigrant who founded and is now executive director of Action Together New Jersey. The group is one of a host that grew up following the election of President Donald Trump and now has 18,000 members. In the midterm election, it distributed 300,000 notes about mail-in ballots and contacted 35,000 people on Election Day by phone or in person to remind them to vote.
“We find ourselves in agreement with the Republicans on this issue, which is a surprise for us,” said Khuong. “We’re asking you to give us a redistricting bill that is fair, nonpartisan and represents all New Jerseyans. When you are using voter-registration data, it is gerrymandering.”
Some found themselves challenged by the main sponsors of the measure, both of whom are lawyers, following their testimony. When Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D-Camden) tried to further pin down Khuong’s thoughts on gerrymandering, she said that she is a mother of three from Montclair and would “defer for (former U.S. Attorney General) Eric Holder, who is doing this for a living.” Holder, a lawyer who now leads the National Democratic Redistricting Commission, told the New York Times in a statement that the New Jersey revisions “fail to live up to” the best standards of redistricting that allow elections to be decided on “who has the best ideas.”
Panels urged not to rush through process
Heather Santos, a Long Valley woman who recently became head of the New Jersey Highlands America’s Promise Association, said she was offended when Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), the sponsor of the measure in the upper house, told her it was obvious she had not read the bill based on her comments. She said she has indeed read it and opposes it based on that reading.
“We’re for getting money out of politics, for having a system of one voice, one vote,” Santos said. “This does not do that. Is the current system perfect? No Is this one better? No.”
Liz Glynn, a Lambertville woman who is a member of the NJ 7th Forward group that helped flip that congressional district for Democrat Tom Malinowski, disputed statements by the Democratic sponsors of the measure that the opponents are catastrophizing the potential impact of the changes.
“This is not fear-mongering,” she said. “Most states are moving forward akin to being more transparent. We should take the time to make sure we are doing this right and not rushing through this.”
Speakers before the Assembly committee were limited in their comments to three minutes. The panel used an unusual method to mark the time: A stoplight-like device on the table moved from green to red when a person’s time was up, emitting a loud alarm that startled many in the room until they got used to hearing it over and over.
Republican legislative leaders also spoke against the measure. Assemblyman Jon Bramnick (R-Union), the GOP leader in the lower house, said he opposes the changes even though they would give him more power — he and the other three party leaders in each house would each get to appoint two members to the commission. Now, the two statewide party chairmen appoint all the members.
“It is a bad concept,” he said. “New Jersey Working Families (a liberal organization) and the Republican Party are both coming together to oppose this bill. That sends the message that this is not a competitive bill; this is not a bill that makes the state better. I have the notion that competitive districts should equally favor Republicans and Democrats.”
Experts are also critical
There were also several experts on the issue who attacked the proposal on several grounds.
Beyond the simultaneous hearings, Murray complained that the proposal is being rushed through without adequate public debate, saying “more voices need to be in this process.”
More importantly, he objected to enshrining in the state constitution the formula that would use the percent of votes Democrats have gotten in recent statewide elections — about 55 percent — as a midpoint, with half districts having greater Democratic representation and half less.
“Imposing a formula, any formula, based on partisan voting behavior is inherently gerrymandering,” Murray said. “Political trust is critical to our republic form of government …This is something that really is not only unnecessary but is absolutely un-democratic and undermines the voters’ faith in our system.”
William Adler of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project said the changes would continue to allow one party or the other to gerrymander districts to favor its side. It should, instead, focus on other requirements.
“We have analyzed redistricting reform bills from across the country,” he said. “Most of them don’t impose quantitative requirements on district partisanship, but a few of them do. Of the other bills that do, none of them implement a formula like the one here … What we’d like to see instead is a bill that could give all New Jerseyans, from all racial, ethnic and political groups, a strong voice in the process. Such a bill would make New Jersey an example for the rest of the country. We fear that this bill would foreclose that possibility.”
Concern about impact on ‘communities of color’
Similarly, representatives of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law said the measure does not focus on the most important principles that should be considered in the drawing of district lines.
For one thing, they said, it does not protect the integrity of “communities of color,” although language in the measure does address communities of interest, which includes social and cultural interests. Yurij Rudensky, redistricting counsel for the center, said the measure could make it harder for African-American and Asian communities to elect representatives that reflect their interests.
Rudensky also said the proposal does not solve “the fundamental flaw” in the current process, which gives all the power to a tie-breaking independently appointed member when the Democrats and Republicans on the commission cannot agree on a map.
Finally, he said, it does not promote “partisan fairness” in a realistic way.
“Instead, it advances an ill-conceived formula that reduces New Jersey’s residents to simplistic partisan labels and pursues preordained electoral outcomes,” Rudensky added. “No states, other than those with extreme partisan gerrymanders, have taken this approach.”
Speaking at the rally prior to the hearings, Jim Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center, said the proposal runs counter to efforts elsewhere across the nation.
“There’s a burgeoning democracy movement catching fire all over the country. We know that the best protection for liberty is more democracy, not less,” Johnson said. “Since 1966, people have often looked to New Jersey because of its voting commission, because of its redistricting process, as one of the leaders in the nation. Now we threaten, at a time when the nation needs us to be in the lead, to step back. We can’t do that. The stakes are too great.”
Measure is on a fast track
Johnson, Murray and others said they were willing to work with lawmakers to improve the measure, but it is on a fast track.
Many of the activists, particularly the grassroots organizers who proved effective in flipping four of five formerly Republican seats in Congress in the midterm elections, said the Democrats are directing their energies in the wrong place.
“We want to be working with you, knocking on doors in the next election,” said Brian Lee, of the Indivisible Central New Jersey group. “Instead, you are wasting this political capital.”