Democratic plan to overhaul N.J. redistricting process met with landslide of opposition

Protesters picket outside the N.J. State House in Trenton minutes before legislators hold public hearings on a controversial redistricting plan. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

Protesters picket outside the N.J. State House in Trenton minutes before legislators hold public hearings on a controversial redistricting plan. (Joe Hernandez/WHYY)

A plan by New Jersey Democrats to reimagine the process of redrawing state legislative district lines is facing a growing outcry from good-government groups, progressives, nonpartisan voting experts, Republicans, and even some fellow Democrats. The critics say the plan would solidify Democrats’ political power for years.

The proposal — which critics have labeled partisan gerrymandering — would alter the membership of the state’s redistricting commission and force it to use a formula that would favor Democrats in the creation of new legislative districts.

On Thursday protesters picketed outside the State House in Trenton ahead of two public hearings on the plan.

“These Democrats in these walls are not Democrats with a small ‘d’,” said Amy Goldsmith, state director of Clean Water Action, flanked by dozens of activists. “These are Democrats who want to take away the power of the people that we have in the voting booth.”

Yet backers of the proposal say rejiggering the commission membership would reduce the power of political party bosses, and implementing a formula would mirror the will of voters in elections with the highest turnout.

“I’ve heard these outlandish reactions throwing around the word gerrymandering, which is just simply not true,” said state Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, who co-sponsored the measure.

The proposal has two main parts.

The first would change who appoints members of the Apportionment Commission, which redraws state legislative district maps every decade based on the national census.

Right now, the heads of the state Democratic and Republican parties each appoint five people to the 10-member commission. The chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th member if a tie-breaker is needed, as is almost always necessary.

Under the draft plan, the commission would grow to 13 members.

The heads of the state Democratic and Republican parties would each appoint two members; the state Senate president would appoint two members; the Assembly Speaker would appoint two members; the Senate minority leader would appoint two members; the Assembly minority leader would appoint two members; and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court would appoint one member.

“A political appointee is a political appointee,” said Helen Kioukis, program associate with the League of Women Voters of New Jersey, which opposes the plan. “We would like more independents in that commission, so spreading out appointment power doesn’t necessarily make it fairer.”

The second part of the Democrats’ plan would require the New Jersey’s redistricting commission to use statewide election results — from contests for president, U.S. Senate, and governor — to guide remapping legislative districts.

“By my estimation, a statewide result is the greatest barometer of where populations are, because those are the elections with the most turnout,” Scutari said.

But others noted that using those results, which heavily favor Democrats, would result in a predetermined outcome that harms Republicans’ chances of having competitive districts and would restrict the commission from altering the map.

“This is an outcomes-based formula,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “It’s not a process formula.”

In two public hearings Thursday, not a single person aside from Scutari, who co-sponsored the bill, testified in favor of it.

The Senate and Assembly hearings on the bill were held separately but at the same time, so people who wanted to testify jostled between two rooms on different floors of the State House as they waited for their names to be called.

Republicans criticized not only how Democrats conducted the public hearings on the plan but also suggested that Democrats came up with the redistricting on their own without any input from GOP members.

“Part of the problem is you didn’t include anybody but yourselves in the process,” said state Sen. Chris Brown, R-Atlantic. “Now you have a bill that you’re putting up for public hearing and is going to be voted upon without inclusion.”

The proposal would take the form of a constitutional amendment, so voters would have the final say.

The legislature can get the question on the 2019 general election ballot by passing it in both houses by a three-fifths majority or passing it by a simple majority in two consecutive calendar years.

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