New Jersey Appleseed Public Interest Law Center today issued the following statement on the proposed constitutional amendment now pending before the Legislature (SCR152 and ACR205) that deals with how state legislative districts are drawn.
After a careful analysis of the pending proposals to alter the State’s reapportionment commission, New Jersey Appleseed has concluded that the proposal would be marginally more harmful than the status quo to the public interest, and to the interest of New Jersey voters. Nonetheless, for reasons more fully stated below, New Jersey Appleseed urges that the current proposal be rejected and that the Assembly and Senate should remand apportionment reform to an appropriate committee, for the establishment of a significantly new system that involves the creation of a citizen-based or nonpartisan commission.
The current method by which both redistricting and reapportionment are performed in New Jersey is at best characterized as minimally acceptable, but short of a just and fair system to which voters are entitled.
As it has operated to date, one political party insider from each of the two major political parties appoints other political party insiders to the reapportionment commission. In the last reapportionment commission, in 2011, seven of the eleven members were sitting legislators. Although the overwhelming presence of sitting legislators who have a self-interest in how districts are drawn is problematic, the current system has some protection against excesses. Namely, because the maps proffered by each political party’s appointees must earn the support of a nonpartisan member appointed by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court, the map drafters are thereby deterred from offering outrageously gerrymandered maps as some other states have witnessed. The results of this process in the past have been minimally acceptable, but they have still fallen far short of what is obtainable as a matter of fairness and justice.
New Jersey Appleseed does not find that greater diffusion in who chooses reapportionment commission members is intrinsically bad policy. We do find it problematic, however, that the current proposal would result in the appointing authorities remaining, as is true under the current system, political insiders with a vested interest in the outcome of the map.
Nor do we find the mandate of a minimum number of competitive districts to be intrinsically flawed. On the contrary, promoting competitive districts is a legitimate factor for the creation of responsible redistricting and reapportionment plans. The problem with the proposed redistricting amendment is that, for the remaining districts – those not deemed to be competitive, there is no meaningful protection against them being “packed” and “cracked” in a way that would create a legislative map that is unjust – not just to political parties – but more importantly, to voters.
New Jersey can confidently look to other states that have created redistricting and reapportionment commissions that draw on experienced professionals, yet seek to minimize (though not eliminate) the role of self-interested legislators and political party insiders in the creation of maps.
While these other methods, sometimes called “citizen-based” or “nonpartisan” commissions, vary in their specifics, what they have in common is they rightly grant political parties and officeholders a full opportunity to be heard in regard to map-drawing. However, they also ensure that legislators and legislative leadership do not serve as, nor do they appoint, a majority of the committee that actually draws the maps. Among others, California, Colorado, and Iowa all have responsible processes that minimize the influence of political party insiders, either as members of redistricting commissions, or with the responsibility of directly appointing members of these commissions. These states’ processes provide useful templates from which New Jersey voters could obtain redistricting and reapportionment processes that have the public interest at heart, rather than the self-interest that is promoted by both the current system and the pending amendment proposals.
New Jersey Appleseed therefore urges that SCR152 and ACR205 be rejected, and the matter remanded to the appropriate Senate and Assembly Committee for a proposal that creates a citizen-based, rather than a party-based, redistricting and reapportionment system.
The above statement was prepared by New Jersey Appleseed Executive Director Renée Steinhagen and board member Flavio Komuves.