“Getting the partisanship out of politics is like trying to take the sex out of porn,” said Diane Carman of The Denver Post over a decade ago.
No one in New Jersey is even pretending that the current proposal in the N.J. state legislature to change the method of appointments to the Redistricting Commission is not political. Quite the contrary. Most agree that it is another round in the continuing power play between the Democratic governor and the Democratic legislature with the Republican Party as collateral damage.
Current Redistricting Process in New Jersey
Under New Jersey’s current process, the New Jersey Redistricting Commission is charged with creating new congressional districts every 10 years. The goal is for the commission to be bi-partisan, with the members evenly split between both parties and lead by a neutral chairperson.
As set forth in the New Jersey Constitution, the leaders of the four caucuses in the General Assembly and the two state party chairpersons each appoint two members to form the core of the redistricting commission. These 12 members then select a 13th neutral party to serve as chair. If they fail to elect a chairperson by majority vote, the Supreme Court selects the chair from the commission’s top two candidates.
Since the evenly divided redistricting commission always fails to agree, the art of this process is to convince the Supreme Court to select the most fair and impartial 13th member possible and hope that you can persuade him or her to pick your party’s side. While the commission is required to hold public hearings, most of the work and all of the political maneuvering is done in secret, behind closed doors.
New Jersey Legislature’s Proposed Amendments
Under the proposed redistricting amendment, which is set forth in Senate Concurrent Resolution 43 (SRC 43), the chairs of the state committees of the two major political parties would each appoint two members to the commission. The four legislative leaders from both major political parties—the president of the Senate, the speaker of the General Assembly, the minority leader of the Senate, and the minority leader of the General Assembly—would each appoint two members. The chief justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey would appoint the 13th member at the beginning of the process.
The amendment would prohibit creating a plan in which more than half of the districts favor either major political party compared to the average district. A district would be more favorable to a political party if the percentage of total votes received in all statewide general elections by that party for the offices of United States president, United States senator and governor exceeds the percentage of total votes received by that party in the average district in the plan.
The new redistricting scheme would also require at least 25 percent of New Jersey’s congressional districts to be competitive. A competitive district would be described as a district within five percentage points of the average district in the plan. For each competitive district in which a major political party’s percentage of total votes exceeds that party’s percentage of votes in the average district, there would be required to be a corresponding district in which that party’s percentage of total votes is less than the average district by approximately the same amount. The amendment would also require communities of interest within districts to be preserved.
Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin are reportedly hoping for a vote on SCR 43 in the next few weeks. Democratic leaders tried to pass a similar amendment in 2015, but it failed to gain the needed support. Not surprisingly, the latest proposal is also facing sharp criticism.
“You’ve got a Democratic state and they want to make sure that it’s a one-party system forever. This is the opposite of what the national conversation should be,” Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick said. “Instead of making things more competitive, they want to make it less competitive in a state that’s difficult for Republicans to begin with.”
This time around, proponents of the amendment have two avenues to get their plan before voters. If both the Senate and the Assembly approve the bill by a three-fifths majority in December, the amendment will be placed on the ballot in November 2019.
Given that the measure is likely to face steep opposition, the more likely path forward would be for the legislature to approve the measure with simple majorities two calendar years in a row. Since we are nearing the end of 2018, lawmakers could pass SCR 43 in December and then again after the New Year. Should the redistricting plan make it on the ballot, New Jersey voters will have the final say.