Op-Ed: We Need an Independent Redistricting Commission and Fair Maps

Helen Kioukis | January 15, 2020 | Opinion
New Jersey’s legislative redistricting process should be reformed so that it’s more independent, transparent, equitable and community-driven
Helen Kioukis

The arrival of the 2020 census data and the subsequent redistricting of New Jersey — the redrawing of our voting districts — will change our political landscape through the next decade. These new districts will serve as the foundation of our representative democracy and determine our communities’ voting strength, the responsiveness of our elected officials, and the policy agendas that are able to advance in the Legislature. But if our voting districts continue to be drawn behind closed doors by individuals with a personal stake in the final district map, it will call into question the legitimacy of our elections and further erode the public’s trust in our government.

The Fair Districts New Jersey Coalition has been advocating for a constitutional amendment to reform New Jersey’s legislative redistricting process into one that is more independent, transparent, equitable and community-driven. We do not want New Jersey left behind as the rest of the country moves toward adopting meaningful, people-powered redistricting reforms. Districts belong to the people, and voters should be choosing their elected officials, not the other way around.

However, in the absence of a constitutional mandate, there is an opportunity to achieve a more independent redistricting commission and prevent gerrymandering. That power lies in the hands of those who will select the ten commissioners responsible for drawing our new voting districts: the chairs of the Republican and Democratic state committees. A recent battle for the Democratic State Committee’s chairmanship centered on this appointment power and concluded with an agreement by the current chair to relinquish some of his power to other legislative and party leaders.

This power struggle sends a troubling message to voters: Redistricting in New Jersey will continue to be manipulated to achieve specific political goals, elevating partisan interests over the public’s interest. But those in a position to select our next redistricting commissioners have a choice. They can continue to leave everyday voters without a seat at the table, or they can take steps toward empowering voters and restoring the public’s confidence in our democratic systems through the commissioner selection process.

Conflict-of-interest provisions

Our statewide coalition urges the chairs of the Republican and Democratic state committees — as well as anyone deputized to make commission appointments of their own — to apply strong conflict-of-interest provisions to their selections and exclude individuals who might be tempted to draw maps to favor their own interests. This includes sitting legislators, their staff, and their immediate family members; elected leaders or staff of political party or campaign committees; certain candidates for office; and registered lobbyists.

Members chosen for the New Jersey Apportionment Commission should also reflect the racial, ethnic and gender diversity of the state’s population. New Jersey is on track to become a “majority-minority” state within the next ten years. A commission responsible for drawing our new district maps and ensuring equal and fair representation for all must include voices from the state’s growing communities of color.

We also encourage the chairs and those involved in conversations related to the appointment of commissioners to consider qualified unaffiliated or third-party voters in their decision-making. Most registered voters in New Jersey are not affiliated with one of the two major political parties. For the commission to truly reflect the electorate, these voters should have an opportunity to serve alongside registered Democrats and registered Republicans.

Finally, the commissioners selected should be individuals who will best be able to redraw the boundary lines of our new voting districts in an independent, honest and impartial manner, who will uphold the principles of the Voting Rights Act, and who will not engage in any effort to gerrymander our districts in any way.

One way to ensure the next map drawers reflect New Jersey’s diversity and meet the aforementioned criteria would be to give ordinary voters the opportunity to serve on the Apportionment Commission. California’s redistricting model highlights the benefits of turning over the line-drawing power to qualified members of the public. The maps developed by California’s Independent Redistricting Commission prioritized public input, resulting in more competitive districts and improved diversity in the Legislature.

Voters support a more independent process

We know that New Jersey voters strongly support a more independent, transparent redistricting process. Those who participated in a series of redistricting public forums last year overwhelmingly agreed that sitting legislators should not be given the responsibility of drawing their own district map, and that space should be created on the commission for members of the public.

And we also know from both national and state-level surveys that improving redistricting and preventing gerrymandering is not a partisan issue. People across the political spectrum want fair elections and responsive elected officials. They want their votes to count. Redistricting is a fundamental component of our democracy and should not be strategically gamed by self-interested appointees.

Population shifts and demographic changes require us to redraw the boundary lines of our voting districts after each census. And while this process won’t begin in New Jersey for another year, the time to fix our flawed redistricting process is now. With the power to choose who will sit on the commission that draws our new maps, both chairs of the Republican and Democratic state committees have this once-a-decade opportunity to improve the independence of our legislative redistricting process and send a better message to the public: When the next redistricting cycle arrives, New Jersey will have a fairer process in place and fair maps.