Redistricting Leads to Dramatic Shift in New Jersey Congressional Delegation: How We Got Here (Part I)

The big winner of the NJ primary last week was not any candidate; it was the NJ State Republican party.  However, the extent of their victory went uncelebrated because it actually occurred several months earlier during Congressional Redistricting.

Republicans scored an impressive success during congressional redistricting this year, and it caused the two biggest tragedies for the state Democratic Party since losing the Governor three years ago. Democrats in the 9th Congressional District suffered through the most divisive and expensive primary fight the state has seen in recent memory, and on June 5 the Democrats in that district were forced to choose between two popular Congressmen. The second tragedy will come in January, when 12 instead of 13 members of the NJ Congressional Delegation will be sworn in, and it is inevitable that there will be one less Democrat.

The consequences of congressional redistricting may alter the balance of power in the nation, yet the process that led to this result had nothing to do with the will of the electorate.  This Republican achievement was the work of 13 political insiders acting mostly behind closed doors.

Under the U.S. Constitution, the number of people who serve in the House of Representatives from each state is determined by the state’s population. In 1787, each member represented 30,000 people. More members were added as the nation’s population grew, until finally in 1929, the maximum number was fixed at 435. After that, the number of people that each member represented grew over time. In 2000, the number was about 650,000 per member. In 2012, the number reached 703,709 people per member.

The U.S. Census counts the population every ten years. As people move, states can gain or lose seats in the House. The 2010 Census caused New Jersey to lose one seat, cutting the number of Representatives from 13 to 12. The state needed to be divided into 12 new Congressional Districts.

The power to redraw district lines within the states is delegated to the states themselves. Under the New Jersey Constitution, the Redistricting Commission is tasked with redrawing the lines of the State’s congressional districts. Six members of the commission are appointed by the Legislature’s Democratic leaders and state party chair. Six are appointed by the Republican leaders and party chair. If the two parties cannot agree on a 13th tie-breaking member, the State Supreme Court selects one of their top two choices.

It is not surprising that the 12 partisan members of the Redistricting Commission can never agree, and the 13th member has always been needed to decide the final plan.  The art of what goes on behind closed doors in the redistricting process revolves around selecting and persuading the 13th member. The party with the members who do the best job gets districts that most favor them. For this round of redistricting, the Republican claim of victory was never disputed and cannot be spun by the Democrats in any way that diminishes it.  The results on June 5th and the eventual roll call in January are the well-deserved trophies of outstanding Republican staff work and maneuvering.  

For more on Congressional redistricting see, “Stand Up and Be Counted: How Population Shifts Impact New Jersey Elections and watch, “What is Redistricting in the United States”.

Donald Scarinci is a managing partner at Scarinci Hollenbeck based in Lyndhurst, NJ and the author of “Redistricting and the Politics of Reform”. Redistricting Leads to Dramatic Shift in New Jersey Congressional Delegation: How We Got Here (Part I)