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New Jersey State Senate. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe

Senate panel backs redistricting plan

Proposed constitutional amendment to change the way legislative districts are drawn is headed to the full Senate

By Nikita Biryukov, November 26 2018 9:16 pm

A proposed constitutional amendment to change the way New Jersey draws legislative districts was approved by a Senate committee today, clearing the way for a vote by the full Senate — and possibly a legal challenge.

The proposal changes the way members of Legislative Apportionment Commission picks their members, and forces a new formula that would likely favor Democrats.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee, in an 8-5 party-line vote, approved a version of the bill that was somewhat watered down from the original version introduced last week.  Still, Republicans and Gov. Phil Murphy remain opposed.

Further complicating the committee vote were a series of amendments to an amendment, which in some cases rewrote previous changes.  That could open up the vote to a legal challenge.

To combat this, Democrats have introduced a second, identical version of the amendment, moving it straight to second reading along with the amendment moved there in today’s contested vote.

The constitutional amendment would strip Democratic State Chairman John Currie, a close ally of Gov. Phil Murphy, and his Republican counterpart, Doug Steinhardt, of their ability to appoint six members each to the state’s redistricting commission.

The amendment would instead give two picks each to the state chairs, Assembly speaker, Senate President, Senate minority leader and Assembly minority leader.

The portion of the amendment that has drawn scorn from the observers deals with a definition of competitive races, which the latest amendment defined as those with a vote margin within 5% of the average in statewide elections, including presidential, gubernatorial and U.S. Senate elections, over the past ten years.

The amendment requires that at least 25% of districts abide by that definition of competitiveness, which would leave Democrats with a lead of up to 20 points in at least 10 of the state’s 40 districts. To make matters worse for Republicans, it does not restrict the state to applying the definition to more than 25% of the state’s districts.

The concern there, said Ben Williams, a legal analyst for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, is that, in a state with New Jersey’s electoral history, Republicans are guaranteed to win no more than 37.5% of the state’s seats, and that number gets even lower if the definition of competitiveness is applied to more districts.

“Since the resulting district would resemble the state as a whole, such a map would create an artificial, evenly-distributed advantage for the majority party,” Williams said. “This would drastically reduce the number of seats for the minority party in a way most New Jerseyans would consider to be unfair.”

Democrats will likely end up moving forward the newly-introduced bill to dodge a legal challenge. In either case, they’ll need to hold a second public hearing on the matter to advance either version of the constitutional amendment.

There was a public hearing on the constitutional amendment Monday evening, after a recess of more than an hour and more than five hours of public hearings and testimony on a marijuana legalization bill voted on earlier in the day.

Few remained by the time hearings on the constitutional amendment started, and some of the committee’s members were among those who ducked out early.

Those members left votes on the constitutional amendment, but it’s not clear whether they had seen the final copy, which began circulating as the committee was voting whether or not to approve it.

Those votes would not have changed the result, though they would have tightened the margin to 4-3, with Democrats still coming out ahead, though there’s some question as to whether or not such a vote would be allowed.

That depends on whether the changes made to the constitutional amendment were substantive. Because of the number of amendments, it’s not clear what changed when.

The final language did ease opposition the amendment faced from some, though non-partisan groups as well as progressive ones still spoke against the change.

“You can’t impose a fairness standard in a formula in constitutional language,” Monmouth University pollster Patrick Murray said, adding later: “The formula itself in terms of fair representation is, for me, it’s problematic because I don’t think it’s a formula can be applied — you can’t institute this to be applied to every single redistricting commission from now to the end of time.”

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