N.J. can improve its redistricting process with a few changes, new report says

The report by a group of academics and analysts recommends a new focus for how New Jersey draws its legislative maps, and more public participation.

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton

New Jersey Statehouse in Trenton. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A group of academics and analysts have recommended changes to how New Jersey draws its legislative maps.

The report comes about seven months after top lawmakers in the Democrat-controlled legislature abandoned a plan to rewrite the rules around legislative mapmaking in response to overwhelming opposition.

“The idea is that you don’t lock in one party or another just basing the map on maximizing the number of seats that they can win, that it actually has to represent different constituency groups in the state,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute and one of the report’s authors. “Whether that representation is Democratic or Republican becomes secondary.”

The report also comes on the heels of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permitted states to draw legislative maps to consolidate political power, also known as partisan gerrymandering, and said it was outside the purview of the federal courts.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Among the group’s recommendations is that New Jersey focus on “communities of interest” — geographically clustered populations that share concerns or qualities — and increase public participation in the legislative-apportionment process.

Redistricting officials would draw maps based on certain factors including racial representation and competitiveness but avoid “formulaic requirements that impinge on the commission’s ability to balance and reconcile competing principles,” the authors proposed.

They also suggested adding three independent members to the commission, which currently is comprised of five Democrats and five Republicans. Under the current rules, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints one independent member if the two sides cannot agree on a map, which has occurred in every cycle since 1981, the authors said.

“It is two partisan groups fighting over the one independent member and trying to be on the good side of that member,” Murray said.

Under the group’s proposal, the commission’s three new members would be appointed at the beginning of the process — not in the event of a tie.

In December, top Democrats in the legislature floated a redistricting-overhaul proposal that would have changed how commission members were appointed and rewritten the rules to entrench their own political power. Opponents — including good-government groups, Republicans, and even some Democrats — pressured lawmakers to drop the plan, which they eventually did.

Other members of the group that wrote Tuesday’s report included Samuel Wang of Princeton University, Yurij Rudensky of the Brennan Center for Justice, Brigid Callahan Harrison of Montclair State University, Ronald Chen of Rutgers University Law School, and Ben Williams of Princeton University.

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal