The New Jersey Legislative Apportionment Commission will hold their first public meeting on Friday morning. It’s just an organizational session to formally adopt their rules – there won’t be any discussions on individual maps – and it will be Philip Carchman’s first meeting since he was named tiebreaker last week.
The 78-year-old Carchman is a former Superior Court judge with a reputation for fairness. He was politically adept enough to get Princeton Borough and Princeton Township to name him municipal court judge when he was 31 — that was when there were two Princeton’s with mayors of different parties – and as Mercer County Prosecutor in 1981, but he spent 34 years as a judge was never overtly partisan.
Carchman becomes the deciding member of the commission that will redraw 40 legislative districts for the 2023 elections. While there are some breadcrumbs about his political philosophies, it’s not clear what Carchman thinks about the process.
In 2019, a group of six academics involved in redistricting reform said that the tiebreaker “has been framed in large part by the priorities of a single independent member over the past four redistricting cycles.”
“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.”
Carchman politely declined to be interviewed – as he probably should at this point – so here are some questions for him:
1. Is he a mediator or a cartographer? Carchman must decide if he wants to broker a compromise between Democrats and Republicans– some call it a “Deal Map” — or if he wants to be an activist tiebreaker who draws his own map and gets five commissioners to side with him. One of the reasons both parties pushed for retired judges as tiebreakers instead of the academicians was their desire for a mediator. Carchman and former Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, the congressional tiebreaker, are the first non-academics to hold the posts.
2. Does he believe in the Stokes Fairness Principle? Princeton University Professor Donald Stokes came up with a partisan fairness criterion he used as the tiebreaker in 1981 and 1991. Stokes put a premium on partisan fairness and used it to apportion legislative seats according to a political party’s share of the statewide vote. Carchman will need to say if he views proportional representation as an imprecise standard – and if he approves or disapproves of cracking – the dilution of one party’s clout among many districts – and packing – the concentration of a party’s clout into a single district.
3. Should there be more — or less — competitive districts? The current map today has just two or three truly competitive districts. That means nearly 95% of Senate and Assembly races are decided in the June primary. Carchman may or may not take the power of organization lines into consideration as he looks at competitiveness.
Competitiveness doesn’t necessarily mean 2023; parties can look at opportunities for the future. The Bergen County-based 38th district resulted in a 56-vote win for a Democratic assemblyman in 2013, but within six years the plurality swelled to 3,798 votes. Republicans won Central Jersey’s 16th district by 1,975 votes in 2011 but lost it by 4,190 in 2019. The Monmouth-based 11th district flipped had flipped entirely by the last election.
4. How does he define communities of interest? In their 2019 report, the academics noted that “identifying communities of interest is a fact‐intensive process. Not only must map drawers consider demographic data, but the process should also seek input from the community members themselves.” The definition can become quite granular, such as requiring municipalities who share school districts to be represented by the same legislators. Carchman will need to come up with his own definition and prioritize issues like race, income, and even train lines.
He’ll also need to decide if he cares about county borders, and if he’ll permit municipalities to jump water to remain contiguous. In the past, tiebreakers have put the kibosh on a Bayonne/Elizabeth district because it would force legislators to leave their district in order to get back in it.
5. What priority does he place on incumbency protection? Tiebreaker Alan Rosenthal largely sought to protect incumbents in 2011 – he refused to entertain a map that didn’t assure former Gov. Richard Codey keeping the Senate seat he’s held since 1981 – but that was Senate-based. Three assemblywomen were put into districts with two other incumbents and lost their seats, an openly gay assemblyman was forced to sell his house and move to keep his seat (ironically, he moved out of Carchman’s hometown and is now the mayor of Trenton), and a freshman Republican got shoved into Steve Sweeney’s district and lost to his two running mates.
As a retired jurist, Carchman understands that the State Constitution limited governors to two consecutive four-year terms and forced judges to retire at 70, but without any parameters regarding legislators. But he may need to decide when a particular legislator is too old to save – for example, do you draw a district so that an 80-year-old can keep his or her seat for another ten years – or are you really drawing a district for someone else?
Part of incumbency protection is continuity of service, and the tiebreaker must decide how important it is for a sitting lawmaker to continue representing mostly his or her old constituency.
6. Will he aggressively protect legislators of color and expand minority opportunities? A lot will depend on whether Carchman expands his definition of minority to the state’s fast-growing Asian American population, and whether he’ll favor the protection of women legislators over men. In 2001, tiebreaker Larry Bartels, then a Princeton University professor, fixated on racial representation but nearly left the state’s only Asian American legislator without a district. In a “by the way” kind of move, Bartels moved Kevin O’Toole from a district that included Roselle Park to one that included Mahwah – and pushed him from the Senate to the Assembly.
7. How does he characterize compactness? Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Some ask if a district a pretty to look at on a map – but others talk about drawing districts around roads that reduce travel time from one end to the other. The current 12th district is neither: it looks like a “less than” symbol (<) and it takes State Sen. Sam Thompson about 50 minutes to get from his home in Old Bridge to Plumsted, depending on how busy Route 9 is. But while the 1st district looks compact, Assemblyman Erik Simonsen has a 75-minute drive to get from Lower Township to Stow Creek.
8. Does he believe the legislative map should come close to meeting federal standards on population equality? The commission will look to the tiebreaker for guidance on population deviations. The U.S. Census put New Jersey’s population at 9,288,994 people, so the ideal size district consists of 232,225 people. The State Constitution allows for a deviation of +/- 10%, but past tiebreakers have sought to keep the deviation closer to +/- 5%.
9. Who will he hire to be his staffers, lawyers and consultants? The tiebreaker gets a budget of about $200,000 and the identities of his team will reveal much about where Carchman is headed. It’s entirely his decision whether he uses academics or lawyers. He’ll also need to decide if his team must disclose personal relationships with legislators or party leaders and if they’ll run conflict searches. Carchman will have the option of determining the transparency of his team, including a decision to subject them to the state’s Open Public Records Act.
10. This question is asked respectfully: how are Judge Carchman’s technology skills? Some 78-year-olds can use a computer effortlessly, while others struggle. The job requires an ability to analyze data and use mapping software.