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Atlantic County Democratic Chairman Michael Suleiman. (Photo: Michael Suleiman).

Opinion: Suleiman on redistricting

By Michael Suleiman, March 31 2022 11:49 am

OPINION

After going through the State Legislature redistricting, Atlantic County Commissioner redistricting, and Atlantic City re-warding process, I am redistricted out. I have joked with friends and colleagues that I would find another line of work if we had to do this more often than every ten years. But now that redistricting is fresh in everyone’s minds, it is the best time to consider what reforms we should do to the entire process.

Before I begin, I know some of these reforms will require a constitutional amendment, but if we clearly communicate their value to the public, I am confident they will win the support of voters.

First, it is important to note the successes of the redistricting process. Judge Carchman’s nine standards were clearly outlined so that laypersons like me could understand them. They were the basis for our successful county commissioner redistricting in Atlantic County, and it is important that similar standards are codified into law. The days of reinventing the wheel every ten years need to end. Besides the statutory deadlines currently in place, state law needs to be more prescriptive in terms of how the exact redistricting process should be conducted. For example, the increased number of public hearings both before and after public maps were unveiled was helpful, allowing members of the public to weigh-in on this vital process. That maps were even posted online for the public’s review was a big victory for transparency advocates and an important step forward. 

One important component missing from the apportionment process this year was the failure to vet various “communities of interest” arguments made by the public and commissioners alike. The term “communities of interest” is, by its nature, subjective. And yet determining whether a particular “communities of interest” argument has merit is critical. It is not just about evaluating an argument by itself but analyzed holistically so we can determine how it compares to competing, and sometimes conflicting, arguments. For example, should a transportation corridor community of interest outweigh a socioeconomic community of interest? It seemed at times that the ”communities of interest” arguments were taken as fact and with equal merit during the state redistricting process, when not all such communities are, in fact, equally important. While consideration of these communities is necessary to the redistricting process, they should be vetted and considered. 

The ongoing fiasco with Jersey City highlights the need to split other municipalities for state legislative redistricting. I am not suggesting that we use the model of congressional redistricting, where no deviation is allowed and every single town can be split to the Census block, but only having the ability to split two cities exactly once makes it incredibly difficult to draw an accurate map. That difficulty will be exacerbated as areas like Lakewood and Edison rapidly grow. To allow future commissions to draw more fair and representative maps, I propose the following: (1) any municipality that exceeds a population of 100,000 may be split exactly once between two legislative districts; and (2) any towns that exceeds the population of the ideal legislative district (e.g., Newark and Jersey City) may be split twice among three legislative districts.  

While there has been a lot of discussion about the independent members of the Congressional Redistricting Commission and Legislative Reapportionment Commission, perhaps the time has come to begin thinking about multiple independent members. What about a panel of independent voices? Maybe the next state redistricting process should feature a retired judge, an academic with expert knowledge of redistricting, and a nonpartisan, nonjudicial member of the public. Not only could these three individuals rigorously evaluate parties’ maps, but they themselves could engage in healthy internal debate about competitiveness, communities of interest, and partisan fairness.

The State of New Jersey has much bigger problems than redistricting and reapportionment, such as property taxes, school funding, income inequality, and climate change, not to mention a state budget due July 1. My fear is that the appetite to pass redistricting reforms will quickly pass and we will enter the next redistricting cycle in 2031 with the same policies, procedures, and problems, still wishing that we had enacted some changes when we had the opportunity. 

My thoughts here are just meant to start this important conversation. I am confident that others will have better ideas or different approaches that still achieve the same goals. But the point remains that we need to have these conversations now rather than wait an entire decade for the next legislative redistricting process to begin, at which point we will be starting from square one.

Michael Suleiman is the Chairman of the Atlantic County Democratic Committee.

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