Democrat-led panel OKs redistricting amendment in New Jersey

Trenton state Capitol building. (WHYY file photo)

Trenton state Capitol building. (WHYY file photo)

New Jersey lawmakers late Monday advanced a proposed constitutional amendment that would overhaul how the state creates legislative districts.

The Democrat-led Senate budget committee approved the proposal after a marathon marijuana legalization hearing that drew large crowds and significant news coverage.

If approved, the new legislative redistricting scheme would lead to the creation of districts that would last a decade, until the next federal census in 2030.

Republicans, a civil rights coalition including the League of Women Voters, and one of the state’s highest-profile pollsters opposed the plan. They say the proposed question obscures a built-in advantage for Democrats by tying districts’ makeup to political party performance in statewide elections over the previous decade.

But supporters say the proposal increases transparency by requiring public hearings and adding public members to the commission that draws the state’s 40 legislative districts.

New Jersey reconsiders its legislative districts after the federal census every 10 years.

Under the current system, a 10-member commission with appointments split between the state Democratic and Republican party chairmen create the maps. The state’s chief justice selects a neutral tiebreaking member.

Under the proposal, in addition to the public meetings, power of appointment would be taken away from state party chairmen. Instead there would be a 13-member commission, and the party chairmen would each appoint two members. At least one would be from the public at large.

The four legislative leaders from both major political parties would each pick two members, with at least one of each of those being a member of the Legislature. The chief justice would appoint the 13th member.

But the proposal’s definition of competitiveness drew significant opposition.

The proposal defines competitiveness based on party performance in prior elections over the previous decade. Specifically, a district could favor one party over the other if a party’s percentage of votes for president, senator and governor over the past decade exceeded the statewide percentage in those elections.

The proposal’s sponsors say the idea makes sense given that New Jersey has nearly 1 million more Democrats than Republicans.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, questioned the use of the word competitive and suggested voters would view the word much differently than lawmakers intended.

“We currently live in an environment where trust in government institutions has eroded to critically dangerous levels; where political leaders at the highest level routinely play fast and loose with the truth to mislead voters,” Murray wrote in guest column for the Newark Star-Ledger.

Democratic Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said his chamber will consider the proposal in the next 20 days.

The proposal does not require Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature to reach the ballot. It can go on the 2019 ballot if approved by a simple majority of lawmakers this year and again next year.

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