Op-Ed: Time’s Running Short to Address NJ’s Flawed Approach to Elections

Lee Keough | November 15, 2019 | Opinion
Reforming how we draw district maps and instituting ranked-choice voting can lead to more representative elections and greater candidate choice — but the clock’s ticking
Lee Keough

For those tired of New Jersey’s lopsided election results and lack of candidate choice — take heart. Things could look very different in 2021, the next time New Jersey will have a state-level election.

Two reforms are in the works that, taken together, would overhaul our system of selecting government representatives to create more competition, higher voter turnout and a more engaged electorate. But due to the state’s boss-driven politics, adoption of either will be a struggle — and urgency is required for both.

Due to the 2020 census, both legislative and congressional election maps must be redrawn in time for the 2021 election. Election reformers are now building the case that the current process is greatly flawed. What’s needed instead is a system for determining district boundaries that involves the public and is more open. Fairdistrictsnj.org is a project led by the New Jersey League of Women Voters calling for that change, but there are about 35 other groups involved in that effort.

Ranked-choice voting is another reform being advocated that will increase public engagement and achieve more competitive elections. Last week, New York City overwhelmingly approved a ballot question calling for ranked-choice voting. A bill supporting it has also been introduced in Trenton by Assemblyman Andrew Zwicker (D-16).

New Jersey used to pride itself on its redistricting method because it is not quite as heavily politicized as some other states, such as Texas and Pennsylvania, where the party in control of the Legislature gets to draw the new maps. (Maps in both these states did not survive a court challenge.) But although both political parties are involved in the process here in New Jersey, it still is driven by party officials.

The current method is for each of the major parties to select five members for a commission — for a total of 10 — to create a map. If the two sides can’t agree — and they won’t — the chief justice of New Jersey’s Supreme Court appoints a tie-breaker to make the decision. In reality, each of the political parties comes up with their own maps and the tie-breaker chooses one.

A decade ago, the tie-breaker was the late Alan Rosenthal, a well-respected political science professor from Rutgers, and who was approved by both parties. He chose the Democrats’ map, but in doing so, Rosenthal said his chief priority was protecting incumbency, not creating competitive districts or minority representation.

To me, that’s in the best interests of legislators, not voters.

A different vision

The League of Women Voters has a different vision, one that calls for a commission without any legislators and an additional five members chosen from the public at large. The LWV also envisions much greater public input, encouraged with interactive events and tools and many hearings and meetings where the public can draw and submit their own maps for consideration.

In order to achieve its goal, the LWV needs to move fast and get the public to apply pressure in favor of the change. Without public demand, we’ll be saddled with a map similar to the one we have for the next 10 years.

That brings me to ranked-choice voting, an idea I thought was a fairytale as far as New Jersey goes. But now I’m beginning to wonder.

A national grassroots group, Represent.us, has been pushing this idea. It has been adopted by numerous cities, as well as the state of Maine. Last week, a ballot question calling for ranked-choice voting won overwhelming support in New York City.

So maybe it has momentum.

This is how ranked-choice voting works: In races that have more than two candidates, voters are asked to rank their preferences. So, say, in 2016, you really liked Jill Stein but were worried voting for her would take away a vote from the more likely winner, Hillary Clinton. Using this new process, you could vote Stein one, Clinton two. Then if no one — Trump or Clinton — won more than 50% of the votes, election officials would look at the Number Two selections and add them to the count. Thus, anyone who voted for Stein, but selected Clinton as Number Two, would see their votes added to Clinton’s.

Counts like this would encourage more candidates who aren’t on a quixotic mission and eliminate spoilers. Instead of “wasting” their votes, people would be able to vote just the way they want to, without fear of repercussions.

New Jersey rarely has serious third-party candidates, probably because no one thinks they can win. In 2009, we had three significant candidates for governor — Democrat Jon Corzine, Republican Chris Christie and Chris Daggett, an independent. At one point, Daggett had more than 20% in the polls, but he eventually lost with 5.8% of the vote. Daggett appealed to members of both parties, but many of them didn’t want to end up helping the candidate they least liked by “throwing away” their vote on Daggett. I wonder if Christie would have prevailed if we had used ranked-choice voting.

Since Zwicker and represent.us envision ranked-choice voting being adopted at all levels of government, including municipal elections, it could be revolutionary. It will open up the process to all types of candidates and encourage more people to participate in the political process, as well as engage the public. Of course, it will also loosen the grip of political bosses. I can’t imagine they will go down quietly.

But time is running short. The state is in the process of buying new voting machines and they must be able to handle ranked choice. (I have no idea if they can.) Once they are purchased, if they can’t be programmed to handle rankings, that will be a solid reason for not moving forward with a new approach to voting.

So now’s the time to apply some pressure.