Democrats could give themselves a self-inflicted wound if they put the constitutional amendment on redistricting on the ballot for 2019, when the state’s Assembly seats come up for election.
Groups on all sides of the aisle are opposing the measure, including liberal ones traditionally at the back of New Jersey’s Democrats. That opposition hasn’t done much, at least at this point, to stymie Democrats’ advancing the amendment, but continuing to do so could put off voters come 2019.
“The assumption on the part of legislators is ‘where are Democratic activists going to go?’” said Micah Rasmussen, director of Rider University’s Rebovich Institute. “They have nowhere to go, but here’s where I think that’s an incomplete analysis: 2019 is the lowest turnout of any year of the cycle. We call it the off, off-year election, and the fewest people show up to vote.”
The amendment would impose a fairness formula on the state’s redistricting process for legislative districts. It would require that at least a quarter of the state’s 40 legislative districts have vote margins that fall within 5% of the average of statewide elections over the 10 years preceding reapportionment.
The measure would also reduce the number of picks made to the redistricting commission party state chairs make from five to two, giving two picks to two legislative leaders from both parties
Opposition to the bill mainly centers around the fairness formula, which would prescriptively disadvantage New Jersey Republicans.
Some groups, like the New Jersey League of Women Voters, have vowed to fight against the bill should it manage to pass simple majority votes this month and early next year, and the state Republican Party has already put money behind digital ad buys on the issue, though it’s not clear how much those buys were worth.
“We will strongly oppose this bill,” said League of Women Voters of New Jersey program associate Helen Kioukis. “We are known for doing ballot question analysis. We have 35 local chapters across the state, but we will not take a position on candidates. We don’t endorse, we never have endorsed any candidates or any political party. We’re really focused on the issue”
The combination of that mobilization and ad buys targeting Democrats over an issue like gerrymandering, which some have charged is what the amendment amounts to, could create a shift in a year where even small differences resonate in results.
“I have thought for some time and I continue to think that it’s a potential miscalculation on the part of the legislative Democrats who are pushing this,” Rasmussen said. “I think there’s the potential for outside spending. There’s a lot of Republican super PAC money out there, so if some national donor decides he smells blood in the water, he decides to get involved in this New Jersey race and he could decide to put a couple million dollars into it.”
Democrats have that same ability, and Rasmussen said that as the majority party they’re better suited to split attention between multiple races.
But, in a year where national politics make Democrats well-poised to take some Assembly seats that have long been held by Republicans, exposing a vulnerability for their own members and potentially hurting their challengers might not be the best move politically speaker, at least not in the short term.
“Bottom line, no matter what you believe is going to carry the day, it’s a complication that I think the Democrats don’t need in a year where they’re the top of the ticket,” Rasmussen said, adding later: “I think it’s a bold move for sure, and I think it’s potentially one that has not been fully thought out. Clearly, they’re thinking on a different plane than 2019, They’re thinking longer term.”