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The Problem with Redistricting - No Competition

Two commissions, two maps and one election later, New Jersey’s once-a-decade redistricting process concluded again with all-too-predictable results—safe seats for almost every incumbent and almost no competitive races to make voters care.

Democracy thrives when citizens believe that their votes count and that they have a real choice to make on the leaders and policies that will shape their lives. The Barack Obama-John McCain presidential election in 2008 and the governor’s race between Chris Christie, Jon Corzine and Chris Daggett in 2009 offered real choices. People cared and were inspired because they felt their decision mattered, and they stayed up on Election Night to wait for the results.

That’s not what happens in most elections for Congress and the New Jersey Legislature. And it is our redistricting process that is to blame—even though our system is better than that of most states.

New Jersey was the first state to create a commission to handle legislative redistricting after the U.S. Supreme Court's "one man, one vote" rulings in the early 1960s. Developed by a special Constitutional Convention in 1966, it was designed as a reform measure to give the two major parties an equal say over the redistricting process, no matter who controlled the Legislature and governorship. At the time, it represented the best redistricting reform in the nation, and a second commission was added to handle congressional redistricting prior to 1990.

New Jersey’s reliance upon a bipartisan redistricting commission with an independent tie-breaker to draw its new legislative and congressional maps is clearly better than the outlandish gerrymandering and punishment of mavericks by the party bosses that takes place in most states, where the governor and legislature draw the maps.

If that was the case in New Jersey, it would not be hard to imagine an agreement on a legislative map that would put former Governor Richard J. Codey’s hometown of South Orange into a 70 percent Republican, Morris County-dominated district that he could not win.

Likewise, Congressman Frank Pallone, a potential 2013 gubernatorial challenger, might have been the incumbent left standing without a seat in this year’s game of congressional musical chairs.

Of the 16 states with bona fide redistricting commissions, New Jersey is one of seven states that establish bipartisan commissions with equal numbers of Democratic and Republican members plus an independent tie-breaker to broker a compromise or cast the deciding vote. The system usually works like binding arbitration, with the independent tie-breaker setting out what he considers the most important criteria for a fair map, then pushing the two sides toward that ideal as a compromise. In the end, as occurs in binding arbitration, the independent tie-breaker asks both sides for a final map—their “best and final offer”—then chooses between the two.

But the two maps are drawn up by party leaders whose idea of a good map is one that is made up mostly of safe seats with heavy Democratic or Republican majorities whose incumbents can be dislodged only by a last-minute scandal or a tidal wave of voter outrage on the level of the anti-Florio tax revolt of the early 1990s. Christie won a 54 percent majority in an issue-oriented 2009 election, yet was unable to elect a single new Republican to the Legislature.

That won’t be changing any time in the next 10 years.

Alan Rosenthal, the independent tie-breaker for the Legislative Redistricting Commission, made it clear that he felt it was more important to protect incumbents than to create competitive races. Rosenthal chose a map proposed by the Democrats that was designed to protect their state Senate and Assembly majorities.

Patrick Murray, a Monmouth University professor, famously predicted in June that not a single incumbent would lose, other than Republican Assemblyman Dominick DeCicco, whose hometown was moved into Democratic Senate President Steve Sweeney’s 3rd District.

Murray was right. Not a single Democratic incumbent lost, and only Bergen County’s 38th District races and Atlantic County’s 2nd District elections were even close. Christie didn’t even bother to campaign for GOP candidates in New Jersey much, focusing his attentions on Republican races out of state. Christie correctly asserted that the legislative districts were so non-competitive that the election could not be considered a referendum on his policies—which defeats the purpose of elections.

The congressional races next fall won’t be much better.

John Farmer, the tie-breaker for the Congressional Redistricting Commission, had the unenviable task of consolidating New Jersey’s 13 districts into 12 because the state’s population grew more slowly than most states over the past decade. While Democrats started out with a map that would have matched up two GOP congressmen and Republicans wanted a map that would pair up two Democrats, Farmer pushed the partisan delegations toward a compromise that would match a Democratic incumbent against a Republican incumbent.

Both sides came in with final maps that had Congressman Scott Garrett, the most conservative Republican in the state delegation, and Congressman Steve Rothman, a liberal Bergen County Democrat, lumped together in a redrawn 5th District, and Farmer ultimately chose the Republican map, which was more favorable to Garrett.

Rothman’s $1.74 million war chest, plus pledges of up to $2 million in support from Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, would have given New Jersey voters at least one competitive congressional race, but Rothman opted to move into fellow Democrat William Pascrell’s solidly Democratic district to run against him in the primary instead.

So the end result of the congressional redistricting process is six safe Democratic seats and six safe Republican seats, now that Garrett is no longer running against a well-funded Democratic incumbent. Even districts that might have been considered marginally competitive, such as the 3rd District, where Congressman Jon Runyon, a former Philadelphia Eagles football player, ousted Democratic incumbent John Adler in 2010, became less competitive. The Democratic bastion of Cherry Hill was shifted into Democratic Congressman Rob Andrew’s 1st District, while Runyon picked up staunchly Republican Brick Township instead.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

"Party leaders don’t like competition, but competitive elections are in the people’s interest," political reformer Ingrid Reed noted during the legislative redistricting process last spring. "Competitive elections increase turnout because people vote when they know their vote counts. They hold legislators responsible for their votes. It’s what democracy is supposed to be about."

New Jersey’s redistricting process should be reformed to give citizens a real voice—and a chance to create the competitive districts that are so vital to a democracy.

First, party and legislative leaders should not get to appoint 10 out of 11 redistricting commissioners. In California and Arizona, citizens interested in serving are interviewed by the non-partisan state auditor’s office or an appellate panel, which makes the appointments. California’s reform commission is made up of five Democrats, five Republicans and four independents—and three from each group must agree to approve a map. A similar process in New Jersey would guarantee that the public interest is represented—not just the political interests.

Second, New Jersey’s redistricting law should be changed to give priority to creating competitive districts where it does not interfere with ensuring minority representation consistent with the Voting Rights Act. Arizona law explicitly calls for the creation of competitive districts, and California and Iowa law expressly prohibits incumbency protection by barring their commissions from considering where current officeholders live.

It is incumbency protection that leads to the creation of maps whose districts make no sense. Just look at New Jersey’s congressional map: New Jersey’s communities of interest run north-south, but its congressional districts stretch east-west. The 4th District runs from Hamilton Township in Mercer County all the way to Ocean County, and the 3rd from the Camden County suburbs to the Ocean County shore. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have a Delaware River region district that ran up Routes 295, 130 and the New Jersey Turnpike from those Camden County suburbs through Burlington into Mercer, and a second district running up the Garden State Parkway and Route 9 through Ocean and southern Monmouth? Shouldn’t Ocean County, the state’s sixth-largest and fastest-growing county, have its own member of Congress?

Finally, New Jersey’s redistricting law should be changed to give citizens the opportunity for meaningful public comment by requiring commissions to release their final maps to the public one week before voting on them. Redistricting is too important to the vitality of our democracy to do any less.

Mark J. Magyar, a veteran State House reporter and public policy analyst, covered the redistricting process for New Jersey Spotlight and coauthored “Redistricting and the Politics of Reform” with Donald Scarinci, who served as a Democratic counsel to the 2001 legislative and congressional redistricting commissions.




Originally published in New Jersey Municipalities, Volume 89, Number 2, February 2012

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