What is Philip Carchman thinking right now?
With the release of the first two legislative proposals on Monday, the retired state appellate court judge and Legislative Apportionment Commission tiebreaker has become among the most important people in New Jersey politics, a distinction he’ll hold until he makes his final choice of a legislative map. Each party’s delegation will spend the coming weeks working to tweak their maps and convince Carchman that theirs is the better proposal, but we likely won’t know Carchman’s thoughts until the choice is said and done.
Helpfully, Carchman released a set of standards back in January that he said should guide his and the commission’s thinking. Using these criteria, it’s possible to assess the two proposals from a somewhat objective perspective – and provide a window into understanding the decision in front of Carchman.
The basics: population deviation, municipality splits, and contiguity
At the beginning of his memo, Carchman laid out the basics of what every map needs to obey: contiguous districts with a maximum 2.5% population deviation in either direction and no municipality splits except in Newark and Jersey City, all of which are required under the state constitution. (The 2.5% figure is Carchman’s own, but districts are required to be of approximately equal populations.)
Naturally, both proposals meet these requirements, but with asterisks that might have to be resolved as the maps are edited.
On the Democratic map, the potential stumbling block lies in Jersey City. The city of 293,190 is split into three districts on the Democratic proposal, something that was done on legislative maps prior to last decade but which commissioners decided to eschew in 2011.
Republicans did no such double splitting on their map, and Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop is on the record arguing that such a split is unconstitutional. If Carchman decides that municipalities should only be split once at maximum, Democrats may have to take a hatchet to their plan for Hudson County, which was designed to cause as little disruption to incumbents as possible.
For Republicans, on the other hand, the problem lies with population deviation. One district on the Republican map, the 35th in Passaic County, has a population of 226,167 – a deviation of 2.55% from the ideal district size of 232,075. The Republican map also has greater population deviations in general, an average of 1.64% off the ideal size versus 1.39% on the Democratic map.
However, it’s not clear whether Carchman will care about either of these issues; he never explicitly barred splitting Newark or Jersey City into three pieces, and he might decide a 0.05% population deviation in one district is not worth blowing up an entire map over.
Verdict: Tie, with mild problems on each map
Carchman, and the state constitution, also require districts to be “as compact as possible,” a requirement that has no single objective threshold but can be compared between the two maps.
Measuring the two maps by Reock compactness score, a mathematical measure that quantifies the compactness of voting districts, the Republican map has a small advantage, with a score of .38 compared to a Democratic score of .35. (A score of 1 means districts are perfectly compact.)
Using a more accessible measure of compactness – how many districts split three or more counties – the Republican map once again comes out on top. It has seven districts that split three or more counties (not counting counties that are completely embedded in one district), while the Democratic map has ten.
And, subjectively, it’s not hard to see that the Democratic map creates more strangely shaped districts than its Republican counterpart; the Democratic map’s 12th, 23rd, and 40th districts in particular are bizarre creations that have no equivalent on the Republican map.
Verdict: The Republican map is more compact along multiple measures
Majority-minority districts and communities of interest
Protecting communities of interest, one of the most important aspects in any redistricting process, is also something that’s impossible to quantify. One person might say Princeton belongs with highly educated suburbs like Montgomery and South Brunswick, while another might argue it belongs with its fellow Mercer County communities like Lawrenceville and Trenton – and who could objectively say which opinion is correct?
Measuring the representation of communities of color, however, is much more feasible. On this measure, both maps perform better than the current map, but both have room for improvement.
The current map has 25 districts that are majority white and 15 that are majority-minority – far from an ideal split in a state that is 48% people of color. Both proposals released this week increase the number of majority-minority districts to 17, and both do so in the same way: shifting the 5th district in Camden County to include more diverse suburbs, and giving Irvington and Hillside to the 27th district to make it plurality-Black.
Of the two, the Republican map is slightly better at creating districts that have a Black, Latino, or Asian plurality – that is, districts in which whites are not the largest racial group. Their proposal creates six Latino-plurality districts compared to five on the Democratic map, and shifts towns in Mercer and Middlesex Counties to create a plurality-Asian 17th district, the first time such a district has ever existed.
But neither map creates the 19 or 20 majority-minority districts that would come closest to representing the state’s overall demographics, and both also fall short of creating as many Black- or Latino-majority districts as they could.
On each proposal, making at least one more majority-Latino district is fairly straightforward; small reconfigurations to the 29th district on the Democratic map and the 32nd district on the Republican map would turn Latino-plurality districts into Latino-majority ones.
Verdict: Fewer white-plurality districts means a slight edge for the Republican map
Carchman also asked the commission to create competitive districts, in order to “ensure that those participating in the political process have a real opportunity to choose a legislator who reflects the will of the voter.”
For these purposes, competitive districts will be defined as those that had a margin of less than 10 points in the 2021 gubernatorial election. This measure doesn’t capture every district that could be competitive under certain circumstances, nor does it account for the fact that political trends will change the partisan layout of the map over the next decade, but it accounts for most districts that would likely see hotly contested elections in an average cycle.
Under this definition of competitiveness, the Republican map once again has the edge, creating 13 competitive districts to the Democratic map’s 11. The Democratic proposal has 18 districts that are solidly Democratic and 10 that are solidly Republican, one more of each than are present on the Republican map.
But there’s a catch. The competitive playing field on the Republican map is explicitly tilted towards their party; of the 13 competitive districts, 10 voted for Republican Jack Ciattarelli, and only three for Gov. Phil Murphy. (The Democratic map has no such imbalance, with five competitive districts voting for Ciattarelli and six for Murphy.)
Verdict: The Republican map creates more competitive districts, with a significant caveat
Continuity of representation
When possible, Carchman wote, it is best to preserve the cores of existing districts, as “district disruptions every ten years do little to further citizen involvement and confidence in the political process.” Carchman did not explicitly mention protecting incumbent legislators, but for a commission that is dominated by political insiders, that is also an unspoken part of their mission.
On this front, the Democratic map is superior, putting eight legislators into new districts compared to 11 on the Republican map. Naturally, each proposal primarily targets legislators of the other party; Democrats unmoor six Republican incumbents and only two of their own, while Republicans dislodge a whopping 10 Democrats and only one Republican.
And that’s likely understating the disruptions caused by the Republican map. A redraw of Somerset and Middlesex Counties means that the 12th, 14th, 16th, 17th, 18th, and 22nd districts – and the 18 mostly Democratic legislators who represent them – are completely blown up.
The Republican map also targets two North Jersey Democratic assemblymembers, Annette Chaparro (D-Hoboken) and Christopher Tully (D-Bergenfield), in what almost feels like an afterthought compared to the dramatic changes to the south.
The discontinuity of representation on the Democratic map, meanwhile, comes largely from Burlington County – where a partisan redraw of the 7th and 8th districts switches five incumbents around – and Republican parts of suburban North Jersey, where Democratic put three Republican incumbents into neighboring districts out of apparent pettiness.
Given that Democrats drew the winning map in both 2011 and 2001, it’s perhaps not surprising that their proposal hews closer to the status quo – after all, they were the ones who created that status quo.
Verdict: The Democratic map reshapes fewer districts and forces fewer incumbents to move
Last in Carchman’s memo, but surely at the forefront of many New Jersey politicians’ minds, is a plea for partisan fairness. As other state legislatures around the country draw maps that brutally favor the majority party, Carchman wrote that New Jersey’s map should not give an undue advantage to any side.
Neither map lives up to his expectations. Looking at each map’s median districts – or, in other words, the districts that would be the tipping point for a majority in a close election – it’s clear that both parties carefully crafted the overall landscape to favor their candidates, and by approximately the same amount.
On the Democratic map, the median districts are the 7th and 19th, which voted for Murphy by 7.2 and 7.7 points (for an average of 7.4 points). Since Murphy only won the state by 3.2 points, that means the Democratic map gives a 4.2-point advantage to Democratic candidates; Democrats could in theory be losing the state by four points, and still narrowly hold onto the state legislature.
Statewide, the Democratic map has 24 Murphy districts and 16 Ciattarelli districts, the same as the current map.
The median districts on the Republican map are the 38th, which voted for Ciattarelli by 1.4 points, and the 21st, which went for Murphy by 0.7 points. That’s an average of Ciattarelli +0.4, or 3.6 points to the right of the state.
Because, as mentioned earlier, the competitive playing field on the Republican map tilted so heavily towards Ciattarelli, he and Murphy won 20 districts apiece – and, given that the Murphy-won 21st district simultaneously elected a slate of Republican legislators, it’s entirely possible Republicans would have eked out a legislative majority in 2021 under the Republican proposal.
More than any other factor, this is where both party delegations on the commission need to make improvements if they want to meet Carchman’s standards. In a state that frequently hosts very competitive state-level elections, an approximately four-point bias towards one party is a big deal, and both proposals could easily see a party win control of the legislature while losing statewide.
(Ironically, the Republican proposal could alternately end up being a disaster for the party in a Democratic-leaning year – President Joe Biden won 31 of 40 districts in 2020, up from 29 on the current map – but there’s no guarantee legislative Democrats can replicate that kind of success.)
Verdict: The Republican map is marginally less skewed, but both require major changes
The final tally
Overall, the Republican map is preferable on four measures and the Democratic map on one. But that lopsided score overstates Republicans, since on two standards – majority-minority districts and partisan fairness – the Republican map was simply the slightly better choice between two flawed options.
Luckily for the commissioners hoping to convince Carchman to pick their proposal, and for New Jerseyans who just want a good legislative map, the plans released on Monday are still only drafts. If Carchman is serious about enforcing his standards, Republicans can reduce incumbent competition, Democrats can strive to draw more compact districts, and both parties can work to reduce the partisan advantage of their respective maps.
Creating a fair and representative legislative map is, in Carchman’s words, “the charge of the commission and, most assuredly, the 11th member.” Now it’s time to see just how far that commitment goes.