Op-Ed: Stop gerrymandering in New Jersey — vote ‘no’ on ballot question #3

David Goodman | October 12, 2020 | Opinion, Politics
Approval of this amendment would deflect from the real redistricting reform New Jersey needs — an independent redistricting commission
David Goodman

We, the New Jersey chapter of Represent.Us, are joining Fair Districts New Jersey, the League of Women Voters and others across the political spectrum to oppose an amendment on legislative redistricting this November. Removing the veil of technical uncertainties about the U.S. Census in this ballot question exposes our Constitution to gerrymandering. We urge a “no” vote on Question #3.

Approving this amendment would have immediate real-world consequences. It would freeze New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts into configurations established after the 2010 census, not current populations. The demographics of New Jersey have changed a lot in 10 years. Keeping the old districts especially hurts communities of color, leaving them significantly under-represented in today’s world.

More prominent in official statements about the ballot, though, is a lot of wonkiness surrounding Question #3 (census deadlines, odd and even election years, primaries, etc.). Most voters don’t get into the weeds and probably care less about the apparent arcana, playing to the advantage of party bosses who might want to keep things status quo. Voters might wonder, why does this all matter?

What would a ‘yes’ vote do?

Supporters of Question #3 on the November ballot would answer, apparently, that a “yes” vote gives us more time to get reapportionment right. We believe that’s a flight of fantasy. To explain, let’s cut to the chase with some information and facts.

First, anyone who has spent any time in Trenton, both pre- and post-COVID, quickly learns that politics in New Jersey is hardball play or, more prosaically, a contact sport. Start with the words and experience of the late state Sen. Bill Schluter on this subject. Often called the dean of good government reform, here is what he said in his 2017 classic, “Soft Corruption”:

“Currently, only a handful of New Jersey’s legislative districts are truly in play to be contested by candidates of the major parties. Because of the way districts are carved up to heavily favor one major party or the other, the remainder are safely in the hands of incumbents. The manner for selecting members of the apportionment commission needs to be changed — a reform that would require a change in the state constitution.”

That meant, for Bill Schluter, an independent, citizen-based commission along the lines of California’s. He understood, in New Jersey’s hardball politics, getting there also meant having — and retaining — political leverage.

We learned that firsthand in 2018. Following New Jersey’s so-called “blue wave” midterm elections, leaders of the state Senate and Assembly contrived to push through a stealth gerrymandering to cement permanent control of legislative districts. They misunderstood the post-election mood for compliance and instead were greeted by more than 100 organizations whose members stormed the State House to demand withdrawal of the proposal. In short order, we prevailed.

Lesson learned: Leverage or the blunt force of a well-organized, law-abiding group matters.

‘Inclusive, transparent, community-driven’ redistricting

Following that victory and with an eye toward the 2020 census, Fair Districts New Jersey and its allies launched a statewide persuasion campaign for an independent redistricting commission. This group’s public letter, which we signed, “called for a redistricting process that is inclusive, transparent, and community-driven, with meaningful public input and fair line-drawing similar to… [other] states” — namely, among others, California.

Members of the California commission were invited to New Jersey, toured the state, and led public forums in different venues to explain how they did their work. It was all open-ended, cross-partisan and, we believe, persuasive.

Did these efforts move the Legislature? There’s no evidence of that; instead Question #3 may serve to deflect attention or “kick the can down the road.” To those who would say Question #3 gives us more time to get reapportionment right, we respectfully disagree.

Approving Ballot Question #3 is the wrong approach. It allows politicians to fix an uncertain problem with a permanent change to our Constitution, deflecting attention from the real redistricting reform we need — an independent redistricting commission. Independent redistricting commissions, like in California, not only take the process out of the hands of partisan politicians. By vesting these decisions with ordinary citizens, they help to reaffirm the American republican tradition of self-rule.

So, to repeat: Vote “no” on Question #3.