Another state legislature is following the lead of Republican lawmakers in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan in an attempt to undermine the will of the people — in this case by carving up legislative districts along partisan lines, ramming the measure through at record speed, and skirting rules that would require bipartisan support.
But there is one key difference between this effort and those in North Carolina, Wisconsin and Michigan: the move is being pushed by Democrats.
Such secretive partisan power grabs have become an old story in contemporary U.S. politics. What’s surprising about this maneuver is that it is mounted not by swing-state Republicans but by Democrats in New Jersey. Legislators in the Garden State hope to fast-track a constitutional amendment that would likely create a durable Democratic gerrymander of the Legislature. If passed, the proposal would strike a blow against democracy and undermine the Democratic Party’s ability to hold the moral high ground on partisan redistricting—all for the sake of padding out a liberal statehouse with a few more Democratic seats. It is exactly the kind of election rigging that most progressives rail against today.
New Jersey’s current legislative redistricting process is not perfect. The chairmen of both major parties appoint five members to a redistricting commission, and the New Jersey Supreme Court appoints a nonpartisan tiebreaker. Typically, each bloc proposes a map. The tiebreaker then picks the plan that hews closest to the New Jersey Constitution’s requirement that legislative districts be compact and contiguous. No plan may warp districts for partisan advantage. (Congressional districts—that is, seats in the House of Representatives—are drawn differently, and the new proposals do not seek to change that process.)
First, it would change the composition of the redistricting commission, increasing its size to 13 members. State party chairs would nominate just two members; the state Senate president, state Senate minority leader, assembly speaker, and assembly minority leader would each nominate two members, including at least one state legislator. The chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court would then appoint a 13th commissioner.
[T]he second change is even more dramatic, and diabolical. It would require half of legislative districts to favor Democrats, and half to favor Republican—but at least 25 percent of districts would have to be “competitive.” That might be reasonable if the measure defined competitiveness fairly, as a district evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. It does not. Instead, a district would be “competitive” if its party composition is within 5 percentage points of the statewide average vote for president, senator, and governor over the past decade.
That number likely gives Democrats a 55 percent majority. So a district with a Democratic majority from 51 to 61 percent would be considered competitive. To understand how the map would operate in practice, consider the state Senate, which has 40 seats total. Democrats would start each election with 20 safe districts. It could then compete in up to 10 more districts where Democrats outnumber Republicans. The map is a recipe for a permanent Democratic supermajority; an analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project found that Democrats could theoretically capture 70 percent of legislative seats with just 57 percent of the statewide vote.
Numerous good government and civil liberties groups have opposed the move, including the Civil Liberties Union, the Brennan Center for Justice, and the League of Women Voters.
And Slate noted that outside New Jersey’s Democratic caucus, there is not much support for the move.
What’s at stake if Democrats join Republicans in playing dirty with district maps?
Right now, Democrats have the moral high ground on gerrymandering: Yes, a few states (chiefly Maryland) have Democratic gerrymanders, but far more have GOP gerrymanders. The 2016 Democratic platform disapproves of partisan gerrymandering, describing it, correctly, as an assault on voting rights. In November, voters in four states enthusiastically approved ballot measures designed to remove politics from redistricting. Democrats across the country campaigned against partisan gerrymandering. A progressive civil rights attorney who sued to block GOP gerrymanders won a seat on the North Carolina Supreme Court. Gerrymandering reform is more popular than either political party, with 71 percent of voters opposing partisan manipulation of district lines.