Home>Feature>Should the Mercer County Board of Commissioners switch to a district-based system?

One hypothetical proposal for a district-based Mercer County Board of Commissioners. (Graphic: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe; data via Dave’s Redistricting App).

Should the Mercer County Board of Commissioners switch to a district-based system?

Hispanic, Asian, Republican candidates could fare better in non-countywide races

By Joey Fox, March 18 2022 4:41 pm

Had Elvin Montero won the Mercer County Democratic Party’s endorsement two nights ago for one of two seats on the Mercer County Board of Commissioners, he would have been the first Latino ever elected countywide. Had Yan Mei Wang won, she would have been the first Asian American elected countywide.

But both Montero and Wang lost to white candidates, and the governing body of Mercer County – a county that is a combined 36% Hispanic or Asian – will lack a clear representative for either of those communities for at least another year. (The party endorsement in county-level races is almost always tantamount to winning the nomination.)

So too will the board lack any Republicans, in all likelihood. No Republican has won a countywide race in Mercer County since 2000, and the approximately 30% of Mercer County voters who tend to vote for Republican candidates have not had any representation in county government since then, a streak that’s very unlikely to end this year.

Last night’s results, then, prompt an important question: since the current system seems to consistently favor white Democrats, how can Mercer County better guarantee the representation of the county’s large nonwhite and Republican populations?

One solution, though certainly far from the only one, is to switch the board of commissioners to a district-based system, where commissioners are elected to individual districts instead of countywide. Such a system is already in place in Hudson County, while Essex and Atlantic Counties have a hybrid system that elects some commissioners by district and others at-large.

If, like Hudson County, Mercer County were to elect a nine-member commission by district, Hispanic and Asian communities could have a voice in a county government that has struggled to include them, and Republicans could finally regain a seat on a board they’ve been shut out of for decades.

A brief history

The current system of electing seven at-large county commissioners to staggered three-year terms was adopted in a 1974 referendum; that same year, Hudson, Atlantic, and Union Counties shook up their own county governments, with each adopting a different system.

At the time, Mercer County was around 85% white and 15% Black, with near-nonexistent Hispanic and Asian American populations. John Watson, the father of now-Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Ewing), had been elected in 1970 as the then-Board of Freeholders’ first-ever Black member, and some Black representation on the board has been essentially guaranteed since then.

The commission now has two Black members, Commissioners Samuel Frisby and Terrance Stokes, the latter of whom unexpectedly upset white incumbent Ann Cannon at last year’s party convention. But the other five commissioners are white, as are Mercer’s four county officers: County Executive Brian Hughes, County Clerk Paula Sollami-Covello, Sheriff Jack Kemler, and Surrogate Diane Gerofsky.

That’s perhaps not hugely surprising, since all eleven offices are elected countywide in a county that still has a white plurality. As of the 2020 Census, Mercer County is 44% white, 22% Hispanic, 21% Black, and 14% Asian, so while the county is majority-minority overall, white voters make up the largest voting bloc any time there’s a countywide election.

Micah Rasmussen, the director of the Rebovich Institute of New Jersey Politics at Rider University, said that while no single seat should be guaranteed for any particular candidate, the continued failure of Mercer County Democrats to elevate Hispanic and Asian candidates represents something of a missed opportunity.

“You can’t just keep on saying no, because that’s how you lose enthusiasm from the exact community you’re trying to reach out to,” Rasmussen said. “It’s hard for an Elvin Montero supporter today to say that the party has found a place for him, and that’s to their detriment.”

As for Republicans, the fault lies not with Mercer Democrats but with simple partisan math. When the countywide system was adopted in 1974, Mercer County could still frequently host competitive elections; those days are long over now, however, and Republicans are stranded in the seemingly permanent minority.

An alternate system

If the county switched to a district-based system, the minority communities that have had to contend with a plurality-white electorate could get a clearer shot at representation in their own areas, and so could the Republican areas drowned out by the heavily Democratic county.

One proposal for a district-based Mercer County Board of Commissioners. (Graphic: Joey Fox for the New Jersey Globe; data via Dave’s Redistricting App).

On the map shown here – which, to be clear, is just one purely speculative proposal – Mercer County’s Black, Latino, and Asian communities would each get the chance to elect a candidate of their choice. The northern Trenton-based 3rd district is 67% Black; the 4th district, covering southern Trenton, is 69% Hispanic; and the West Windsor-based 8th district is 46% Asian.

Two more districts, the 2nd in Ewing and the 5th in inner Hamilton Township, are majority-minority and would feature highly diverse electorates of white, Black, and Hispanic voters.

 

 

This is not to say that any of these districts would necessarily elect a nonwhite candidate, of course, nor would the map’s four majority-white districts necessarily elect white candidates. But unlike the current setup, majority-minority municipalities like Trenton, Ewing, and West Windsor would not have to compete with the rest of the county for representation.

For Republicans, the 6th district, which covers the whiter and more conservative parts of Hamilton Township, would have voted for former President Donald Trump by three points and would be winnable for a Republican candidate. 

Currently, Republicans are shut out even from local government in Hamilton, which leans Democratic and elects councilmembers at-large. A district-based county system, then, would give Hamilton Republicans a political stepping stone they’ve been unable to achieve for a long time.

There are purely good-governmental reasons for supporting a district-based system, too. Right now, all seven commissioners have to both run countywide and attempt to represent the entire county once elected, each of which requires a huge amount of resources.

If their constituencies were cut from 385,000 down to around 43,000, that would allow commissioners to provide more local and personalized services for their communities, and cast votes according to the specific needs of their districts. Those who are suspicious of the county establishment system would also stand to benefit, since off-the-line primary bids would become far easier in smaller constituencies.

The obstacles to change

As is the case whenever government reforms are proposed, there’s no guarantee of buy-in from the existing Mercer County establishment, and Rasmussen said many Mercer politicians would likely argue the current system has worked well without ay intervention.

“What the powers that be would say is, ‘We’re doing just fine on our own. Let us continue to make sure that we have diversity,’” he said, “My guess is that they would argue that they’re doing what they should be doing.”

Such arguments would not be without merit. After all, the existing system led to an additional Black commissioner getting elected last year, and with the selection of Commissioner Nina Melker and Lawrence Councilwoman Cathleen Lewis this year, will likely produce a majority-women commission come 2023.

The incumbents on the commission might not be too pleased with a district-based system either. While having nine districts would in theory allow for all seven current commissioners to keep their jobs alongside two new members, the geographical composition of the existing board makes that unlikely.

Two commissioners, Terrance Stokes and Lucylle Walker, hail from Ewing, meaning they would almost certainly be drawn into one district. Each of the municipalities surrounding Ewing – Hopewell, Lawrence, and northern Trenton – also has one commissioner (or will, once Lewis is elected), making a map friendly to every incumbent very difficult.

Commissioner John Cimino, meanwhile, lives in a Republican section of far-off Hamilton Township that would be placed in a competitive district on any fair map, forcing him into his first-ever difficult general election. 

But while there might be resistance from some corners to a district-based system, many different constituencies would stand to benefit: Latinos, Asian Americans, Republicans, anti-county line progressives, and the political establishment in Trenton, which holds only one of the 11 countywide offices despite making up nearly a quarter of the county’s population.

If the commissioners themselves decide they like the idea of switching away from countywide elections, the process would be straightforward. The commission could put a question of whether to reshape the county government structure on the ballot, and if Mercer County voters approved the changes, they would go into effect the next year.

In the scenario that the commission is reluctant to remake itself, organizers could instead proceed via the more cumbersome petition process. After gathering a sufficient number of petition signatures, a referendum would be placed on the ballot of whether to form a charter commission to review the county government structure; that charter commission would then make a specific recommendation for how the county government should be reworked, which would then go on the ballot the following year and put into effect the year after that (if approved by voters).

When something has been in place for enough time, it can begin to feel inevitable. But the current Mercer County government system was completely reshaped after the 1974 referendum, and a similar break from precedent could happen just as easily today; the question is whether those with the levers of change in their hands decide one is necessary.

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