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Academics suggest changes to NJ legislative redistricting

Maintaining communities of interest would be top priority

By David Wildstein, July 16 2019 5:00 am

A group of six academics involved in redistricting reform are calling for a changes to the New Jersey Constitution to make the rules governing legislative redistricting to become clearer, more transparent, and allow for a better representation of state’s population.

New Jersey is constitutionally mandated to redraw the state’s 40 legislative districts every ten years, after the U.S.  Census.

The representatives of academia — Patrick Murray of Monmouth University, Samuel Wang and Ben Williams of Princeton, Brigid Callahan Harrison of Montclair State, Ronald Chen of Rutgers Law School, and Yurij Rudensky of New York University – are proposing that the number of independent commissioners be increased from one to three, with the New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice naming them at the start of the reapportionment process.

One key proposal is to amend the Constitution to “make communities of interest a central organizing principle for drawing the legislative map.”

The panel is also recommending that competitiveness of legislative districts be a secondary consideration used after other higher priorities have been met, and suggests that incumbency no longer be included as a priority in drawing new districts.

To allow greater public input, the academics want the 2021 Primary Election moved to mid-August.

Among the recommendations:

* Amend the constitutional language to “express protections for communities of color;”
* Continue protection of municipal boundaries by not spitting towns, but remove the requirement to consider county boundaries;
* Maintain the current requirements that districts be geographically contiguous;
* Restraining the redistricting commission’s ability to favor or disfavor a political party as a primary criterion;
* Moving compactness of districts to be a secondary criterion;
* Preservation of geographic cores would no longer be a priority for the drawing of legislative districts.

Reframing the tie-breaker

The academics noted that the legislative map “has been framed in large part by the priorities of a single independent member over the past four redistricting cycles.”

Princeton Professor Donald Stokes came up with a partisan fairness criterion in 1981 and 1991, while another Princeton professor, Larry Bartels, fixated on facial representation in 2001.  In 2011, Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal, sought to protect incumbents, arguing continuity of representation in 2011.

“An independent member may come to the table with a clear idea of which principles should be prioritized or that member can be successfully lobbied by one partisan contingent or the other to elevate certain redistricting criteria,” the academics said. “New Jersey’s process has been subject to both dynamics.”

Among the proposals is a requirement that 8 of the 13 commission members be required to adopt a map.

“This ‘majority + 1’ requirement means that a final map would have to garner either bipartisan support or the unanimous support of the independent members and one partisan delegation,” the group said. “This provision will help reinforce the legitimacy of the final plan in the public’s view and ensure that one party cannot use the process to steamroll the other.”

Prioritizing communities of interest

“Drawing districts around communities of interest produces many benefit,” the academics said.  “Such maps allow organic political competition at both the primary and general election levels with candidates and parties competing with each other to advance proposals that address the common needs and concerns of each particular community. “

In recommending a constitutional amendment to make communities of interest a central organizing principle for creating new legislative districts, the panel noted that “when districts coincide with preexisting networks, it is easier for citizens to organize and engage with their elected officials, raising civic participation and improving the quality of representation.

“The community of interest approach also limits the discretion of the map drawers to carve up populations based on partisanship and skew plans in favor of particular political parties or incumbents,” the group wrote.

Partisan fairness as the #2 priority

“The creative drawing of lines can systematically shut one party out of power, reducing its opportunities to win races. This can be done by cracking voters of one party between districts, while packing them densely in others,” the group said. “A fairer approach would be to aspire for the balance of partisan control of districts to broadly correspond to each party’s relative strength in the electorate. However, the operationalization of this concept is anything but simple.”

The Stokes Principle equated a party’s share of legislative seats with their statewide share of the vote.

According to the academics, proportional party representation “is an inexact standard.”

“Past voting is a commonly accepted way to evaluate the fairness of a map because most voters have consistent partisan voting habits. However, the resulting share of either party’s legislative seats tends to exceed – or fall short of – its statewide share of the vote,” the academics said.  “This arises from the winner‐take‐all nature of single‐member districts. In a given district, a candidate may win only 50%‐plus‐1 of the two‐ party vote, yet will win the ‘entire’ seat. Thus strict proportionality, while conceptually appealing, often does not occur even in a neutrally drawn map.”

The report argues that “superior measures of partisan fairness are available” and noted that “measures of fairness may be specific to federal versus state elections and for executive versus legislative positions, because voter preferences can vary depending on those circumstances.”

“It is important that New Jersey’s legislative map is not drawn to give one party an advantage, or disadvantage, that is out of line with the overall preference for that party among the state’s electorate,” the academics proposed.  “Rather than write a specific test into the state constitution, a suitable reform is to require that a map should avoid conferring “inequality of opportunity.”

Competitiveness as a secondary criteria

“Prioritizing competitiveness could pose a conflict with meeting high priority racial representation and community of interest standards,” the group said.  “Like partisan fairness, competitiveness seems like a principle where an agreed upon objective metric can be achieved, but in reality it is as open to interpretation as any other redistricting concept.”

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