Reform Advocates Push for Fairer Redrawing of NJ Legislative Districts

Colleen O'Dea | November 14, 2019 | Politics
Activists press for more citizen involvement; members of California Citizens Redistricting Commission explain how it works there
Gil Ontai of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission is in New Jersey this week, explaining how they drew the lines for legislative and congressional districts without considering political parties or protection for incumbents.

New Jersey’s process for drawing legislative district boundary lines could be much fairer and less political if it were taken away from lawmakers and put — at least partly — into the hands of citizens, say organizations pushing for changes in the process.

Underlining the case for citizen involvement in the process are members of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission, who are in New Jersey this week. The Fair Districts New Jersey Coalition is hosting three commission members to talk about their unique experiences as part of an independent group that drew the lines for legislative and congressional districts without considering political parties or protection for incumbents.

Helen Kioukis, program associate with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey (which is a leader of the Fair Districts coalition), said that a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that bars challenges to partisan gerrymandering “underscores the urgency that we need state level reforms and the California commission is a model for what those reforms can look like.”

District lines must be redrawn every decade following the U.S. census count to ensure that state and federal districts are of roughly the same population; and if the state loses a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, the number of districts must be consolidated. In New Jersey, two different commissions do the work, one for state districts, the other for congressional seats. While the appointment of members to those commissions differs slightly, both are split between the major political parties with a tiebreaker appointed by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court if — or when — the parties cannot agree on a map.

The appointment of that tiebreaker has prompted good-government groups to look kindly at the state’s redistricting process, but more recent reforms — such as the California citizens’ commission — make New Jersey’s set-up look less than ideal.

‘In the hands of people who do not have a self-interest’

“We think that redistricting should be in the hands of people who do not have a self-interest,” said Jeanne Raya, a Democratic member of California’s commission and small business-owner who works as a principal at an insurance agency. “We think it should be a transparent process. And we think that’s the only way that citizens can have trust in it.”

In California, lawmakers used to draw district lines themselves. In 2008, voters backed a ballot question that moved the responsibility for state districts to a citizens’ commission and two years later, decided that commission should also draw congressional maps. Five Democrats, five Republicans and four “independents” — individuals who are not members of either party or who decline to state an affiliation — make up the California commission.

Jeanne Raya of the California Citizens Redistricting Commission: Redistricting “should be in the hands of people who do not have a self-interest.”

A decade ago, the 14 members were chosen from among 36,000 citizens who applied. They were vetted, judged on their essays on such issues as diversity and how they would resolve conflicts, and then were interviewed by a bipartisan panel of auditors, who culled the field to 60 candidates. The majority and minority leaders in each house then each got to remove two members of each pool (Democratic, Republican and independent). From the remaining candidates, the state auditor, who is nonpartisan, chose eight randomly; these first eight members in turn chose the last six. Their terms will expire in July 2020 when the new members are seated.

After 34 public hearings at which 2,700 individuals testified and receiving 20,000 emailed comments, the commission drew a map in which a third of the districts are considered competitive between the parties. It stood up to a constitutional challenge at the state level by the GOP. After the 2012 election, the state had 38 new Assembly members — almost half of all — and nine new senators, close to a quarter. More than a quarter of House seats, or 14, also turned over. According to Raya, only five seats turned over in the two prior redistricting cycles.

All proceedings in California were transparent

“I think one of the most remarkable things about our experience in California is that all of our proceedings were transparent,” Raya said. “We could not discuss mapping over dinner, could not talk to anybody else about it. We were live-streamed so that anyone could watch the proceedings, or go back later on and pick it up off of our website and see what has been discussed.”

At times, there was a two-hour wait to address the commission, “so many people were interested,” she added.

By contrast, New Jersey’s commissions have in the past typically held three public hearings and all the major work has been done behind closed doors, with each party’s caucus drawing a map and the independent member choosing to back either the blue or red map. In 2010, the Democrats’ legislative map won, while the Republicans’ congressional map prevailed.

That’s not what Citizen Action, another member of the Fair Districts coalition and host of the discussion with the California commissioners, considers to be the best process.

“It isn’t actually bipartisan,” said Liz Glynn, Citizen Action’s director of organizing. “There’s no forced coordination and collaboration there … We want to have people have to work together, build consensus on agreeing upon a map.”

She said that a report by New Jersey’s League of Women Voters found strong support among the public for a more impartial and more transparent process in New Jersey.

‘Recreating confidence’ in citizens

“The only people we were accountable to were the people of California,” said Gil Ontai, a Republican commissioner who works as an architect and urban planner. “The work was genuinely stimulating ordinary citizens to come forward … We were recreating confidence in California citizens and that was extraordinary.”

He said “some of the most difficult decisions we had to make” in drawing districts were in Los Angeles, which has a high concentration of Latinos, African Americans and Asians. So the commission turned to the people there for help, asking them to draw maps.

“And they did that,” Ontai said. “We call it the unity maps, and, and we approved it. We felt it was fair. And it came from the community.”

Despite the partisan bickering that seems to permeate politics today, the commission met the potentially difficult bar of getting the support of commission members of each political party and the independents to approve any map. Raya said the Assembly and Senate maps passed unanimously. The vote on the congressional map was 12-2.

“We knew what our job was,” said Raya. “That’s what we were focused on. I think what happens in the legislature is they forget what their job is. And they begin to think the districts belong to them; ‘It’s my district.’ They try to barter, as they did in California, with something that is not theirs.”

The only reason California changed its process was because voters endorsed it in the 2008 ballot.

New Jerseyans do not enjoy the right to put questions on the ballot, which will make it more difficult to change the redistricting process here, the advocates admit. But they say that more states are trending toward reforming their own redistricting processes and hope New Jersey joins that movement.

Could New Jersey be left behind?

“We might not have the initiative process, but the trend is moving one way and New Jersey, if we continue to say that we don’t have the worst process, we’re going to be left behind,” Kioukis said. “I think that we need to be leaders in reform and move forward with something more aligned with what other states are doing to bring their redistricting processes closer to what California achieved, if not a full independent citizen commission.”

The Fair Districts coalition has proposed seven major reforms, including:

  • A 15-member commission whose racial, ethnic and gender diversity reflects that of the state and whose members include five independents chosen by former judges;
  • Greater public transparency, including the sharing of draft maps with the public;
  • Criteria for drawing boundaries that prohibit the use of partisan and political data, as prohibited in California.

Among other plans that have been advanced is one by a half dozen academics and lawyers that include Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Poll. Their plan would give the commission 13 members, three of whom would be independent and appointed by the chief justice at the start of the process, rather than after members deadlocked.

In New Jersey, public interest in redistricting has been evident.

Last fall, when lawmakers tried to rush through a measure to change the process that many saw as likely favoring Democrats, a public outcry ensued and legislators canceled a vote on the measure. No new legislation is being pushed yet, and may not be, given that Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) appears to have enough votes to get his candidate, Leroy Jones, named as chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee. That vote is expected in January 2020; Gov. Phil Murphy  is backing current chair John Currie. (The party chairs get to name the five partisan members of the legislative apportionment commission.)

Kioukis and Glynn acknowledge that the clock is ticking on any reform. It would require a constitutional amendment, which would either have to pass the Legislature by simple majorities before the end of the current term and in the next or by a supermajority next year. The process of redistricting is set to begin in early 2021 after the release of updated census population figures and must be completed quickly so the districts can be used in that year’s legislative elections.

Members of the Fair Districts coalition met with lawmakers Wednesday and plan to do so again today.

Time running out

“This is really one of the last opportunities we have,” Glynn said. “We’re working to get the support we need to get it passed in the Legislature.”

The three California commission members are scheduled to hold a town hall today from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Princeton University’s McCosh Hall, Room 28. Sam Wang, a Princeton professor of neuroscience and founder of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, will moderate that discussion.

“California provides an exciting example of how citizens can power reform through independent commissions,” said Wang, who testified last fall in opposition to the New Jersey Democrats’ aborted redistricting measure.

The California commission members are travelling across the country to talk about their process under a grant from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

“To make sure each and every man, every woman has one vote and is counted and represented equally, that has been my mainstay, my motivation to be part of this commission,” said Andre Parvenu, an unaffiliated commissioner who once lived in New Jersey and now serves as a planning consultant for Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils. “It’s incumbent on us to hold up this democracy.”