By Martin L. Marks
The 2011 elections are now behind us and the all but completely predictable results are in. All 120 seats of the New Jersey State Legislature were at stake following the once per decade redistricting process completed earlier this year. 110 out of 120 incumbent legislators were seeking reelection to either the seats they already held, a seat in a newly formed district, or in a couple of cases, sitting members of the General Assembly seeking a Senate seat. Out of the 110 seeking reelection, 108 or 98.2% were reelected. Most elections were double digit landslides with the closest race coming in with a 6% margin of victory. These are pretty staggering figures and one wonders whether the numbers are so high because of the electorate’s overwhelming approval of the job our legislature has been doing or whether there is another reason at play. I believe it is more of the latter and can be directly attributed to the above-mentioned legislative redistricting process.
Following the once per decade national census, the fifty states are empowered with the duty to redraw their congressional district lines as well as their state legislative district lines. In New Jersey, both the Democratic and Republican parties select members (usually sitting legislators) to a redistricting commission where each side proposes new legislative maps, ostensibly using guidelines set forth in the New Jersey Constitution. In reality they do so more in a manner that would gain them an electoral advantage in the next ten years’ worth of elections, while at the same time placing their incumbents in “safe” districts. If you remember your high school government class you might recall that this shady practice is known as gerrymandering. Invariably the two sides never agree on a map and a tiebreaking vote is appointed by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. This year’s tiebreaker was the scholarly Rutgers professor Alan Rosenthal, a life-long Democrat who (surprise, surprise) chose the Democrat proposed map over the Republican map. Perhaps the most outrageous component of Professor Rosenthal’s rationale was his desire to ensure a “continuity in representation” in our legislature. That’s right. The learned professor somehow interpreted the guidelines of our state constitution to read that the new legislative districts be drawn in a manner that would all but guarantee that incumbents get reelected. And ladies and gentlemen, that is exactly what happened on November 8.
One should think that there has got to be a more equitable way to go through this redistricting process; a process that most citizens do not realize is even happening and a process that has heretofore had more impact on the makeup of our elected officials than any given election. In this age of advancing technology I ask why we allow this redistricting process to be driven by partisans who essentially place their own political survival ahead of the guidelines set forth by the constitution. It would seem reasonable to me that a relatively simple computer program be written (and yes, even agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats) that would accomplish both the state legislative and congressional redistricting based solely on constitutional guidelines and do so in a matter of seconds once the new census data is entered. This would no doubt lead to more competitive districts where incumbents could no longer assume automatic reelection. The number of life-long politicians would be dramatically reduced and those that were ultimately selected through more competitive elections would be a more responsive group who could no longer take their constituents for granted.
As you read this, a commission composed of partisan Republicans and Democrats are plotting New Jersey’s next congressional district map in time for the 2012 elections. New Jersey will lose one seat because of a loss of relative population and bring our congressional delegation from 13 to 12. There is no question in my mind that the new map will be drawn in such a way as to ensure that come November 2012 (and subsequent Novembers through 2020), all 12 incumbents will find themselves easily reelected because of their respective gerrymandered districts.
While there are cases to be made for reform in many facets of government, none would have more of an impact on our political landscape than a change to the way our legislative and congressional districts are drawn every ten years.
Martin L. Marks was mayor of Scotch Plains between 2000 and 2008