It happens every ten years in every state in the union.
Legislative district lines are redrawn to conform to shifts in population per the U.S. Census. And due to New Jersey’s odd year election cycles, it usually happens here first.
The Garden State is also unusual in how it redraws those lines. Most states redistrict through normal legislative procedures. Whichever party controls the legislature also controls the redistricting process.
The New Jersey Constitution, though, assigns that task to a Legislative Apportionment Commission that is comprised of ten partisan members—five named by each chair of the state Democratic and Republican party organizations—and an 11th member appointed by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
The 11th member is sometimes referred to as the tiebreaker. This person can prod each party’s delegation to reach consensus on their maps, but in reality usually has to side with one party to approve a new map before the mandated deadline.
This year, that tiebreaking member was Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal, one of the nation’s foremost experts on state legislatures. In his first public appearance as a member of the committee, Dr. Rosenthal explained the standards by which he would judge a fair map.
Most of those standards are well founded in federal and state constitutional law and precedent. They include a narrow definition of equal population per district, contiguity of district borders, and maintenance of minority voting power in districts where minorities comprise a majority of the population.
Rosenthal also included a less widely used, although acceptable, standard of “continuity of representation,” meaning “that a substantial proportion of a
district’s population from the old district continues in the new one.” In real terms, this means that legislators face basically the same electorate that has returned them to office in past elections.
This should have come as no surprise to anyone who has read Dr. Rosenthal’s writings on state legislatures. For Dr. Rosenthal, continuity is a desirable attribute in state legislatures. Continuity means you have an experienced group of legislators who know how to operate the levers of powers.
The Democrats understood this. When Rosenthal asked for changes to both parties’ maps, they made sure to dot every “i” put before them. On the other hand, you can understand the Republicans’ reluctance to submit a map that met Rosenthal’s standards. To regain control of the Legislature, they needed a map that allowed for a good deal of disruption. As soon as Dr. Rosenthal announced the standards by which he would judge the final map, it was clear there was little, if anything, that Republicans could do to get a map that gave them even a fighting chance in the next election.
In this regard, the GOP have only themselves to blame. Chief Justice Stuart Rabner asked the Democrat and Republican commission members to submit names of acceptable candidates for the 11th member. Alan Rosenthal was the only name that appeared on both parties’ lists.
The importance, indeed priority, Rosenthal placed on the continuity of representation principle became clear when the Legislative Apportionment Commission met to vote on the final map. In justifying his choice, the tiebreaking member stated: “The Democratic map, I believe, was a more conservative, less disruptive map.”
This minimal disruption means that very few incumbent legislators found themselves in districts where they had to face off with other incumbents to maintain their seats. It also means there is very little likelihood for competitive elections. Nearly every incumbent is safe.
Focusing just on the state Senate, at least 27 out of 40 districts are likely to elect or re-elect legislators by margins that are within 5 percentage points of what the victorious party is generally accustomed. Other districts draw in new towns that have voted for the opposite party, but these will still be safe districts come November. Think in terms of 15 to 30 point wins rather than 25 to 40 point wins.
This may sound like good news to mayors and other municipal officials who have spent time building relationships with their state legislators. And for most it will be. But for a large number of local officials, it may not.
To make the new legislative map minimally disruptive for incumbents, a significant number of towns needed to be shuffled between districts. The new map appears to be less compact than the current one, with some districts being made contiguous by mere yards of a shared municipal boundary (such as the 34th district’s Montclair to Orange cemetery link).
Of importance to local officials, the map effectively shifts one third of New Jersey’s municipalities into new districts. That means nearly 190 mayors now have to form relationships with new legislative delegations. In some cases, this could be positive, as incumbent legislators reach out to new constituents to solidify their own positions. In other cases, especially in safe districts, local officials in the relocated towns could be at a disadvantage considering the pre-existing relationships of legislators and communities that remained in that district.
The number of municipal district relocations is further exacerbated by the increase in the number of districts that cross multiple county lines in this new map. Towns that have common interests must now go to multiple delegations to appeal for those interests at the state level.
Somerset County provides one of the starkest examples of how the new map has disrupted municipal representation in the state legislature. With a population of 323,000 people—not even one and half times the size of a typical legislative district—the county is split across no less than six districts in the new map!
The neighboring Somerset County townships of Bernards, Branchburg, and Bridgewater are all in the 16th district under the current map. If they have a common interest in a state issue, they can band together and appeal to a single delegation. After the November elections, these three municipalities will find themselves represented by three different sets of state legislators.
Only Branchburg officials will have a pre-existing relationship with their legislative delegations. Bridgewater will be represented by three legislators from Warren County and Bernards will be represented by an exclusively Union County-based delegation. And it’s also worth mentioning that the eight Hunterdon, Mercer, and Middlesex communities that have been thrown into the 16th district find themselves represented by an all-Somerset County delegation, even though the seven remaining Somerset County towns now make up less than half the new district’s population.
These are just some examples of the issues that local officials will face with the new legislative map. While it may have protected incumbents, it has raised some challenges for towns.
There is some good news for local officials, though. Nearly all the districts are safe bets for one party or the other and there are very few primary challenges. That means we already know who the vast majority of the new legislators will be. So local officials can start building those legislative relationships now.
Originally published in New Jersey
Municipalities, Volume 88, Number 6, June 2011