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Retired New Jersey Superior Court Judge Philip Carchman. (Photo: New Jersey Bar Association).

There’s no such thing as a perfect legislative map

As redistricting commission works to redraw districts, myriad concerns will have to be balanced

By Joey Fox, January 14 2022 2:26 pm

Last Saturday, Legislative Apportionment Commission tiebreaker Philip Carchman released an eight-page document outlining his requirements for the state’s next legislative map and laying out a series of standards he hopes the redrawn districts will fulfill. 

Among those standards are compactness, continuity of representation, protecting communities of interest, partisan fairness, and competitiveness, as well as non-negotiable requirements like preserving municipal boundaries and obeying the Voting Rights Act. But while Carchman was optimistic that all of these goals can be achieved, he noted that they will always have to be in balance with one another.

“I view each of these standards as necessary to my role, but I recognize that the standards may be weighed and valued, in their application, differently by different people,” he wrote. “While some may view the standards as separate and discrete, I see them as integrated, so that no one standard can dominate to the exclusion of others.”

As the commission, which is composed of Carchman and five delegates from each major party, goes about its work to redraw the legislative map in the coming weeks, this balancing act will be one of its most difficult tasks. The criteria Carchman outlined may not be “separate and discrete,” as he said, but they are often hard to reconcile with one another as part of a larger, cohesive legislative map.

Presented here are four examples of how the commission could approach different districts around the state. Each one shows how, depending on what they choose to emphasize, the commission could significantly increase the new map’s competitiveness, or minority representation, or compactness, or all of the above – and how too strong an emphasis on any one goal could jeopardize the others.

The 16th district and the potential for Asian representation

The 16th district, based in the well-educated towns of Central Jersey, is one of the current legislative map’s strangest districts. It spans across four counties, beginning on the Delaware river, heading up into the hills of Somerset County, and finally moving south to grab Princeton and several of its suburbs.

That strange shape is deliberate, and in fact represents one of the few unambiguous examples of gerrymandering on the current map. Back in 2011, Democratic mapmakers saw an opportunity to make the Somerset and Hunterdon County-based district bluer by adding Princeton and South Brunswick, a gamble that has since allowed the party to flip all three of the district’s seats.

This selective redrawing violates one of Carchman’s criteria, which is that “no district … should be drawn solely to favor or disfavor a political party.” Thus, the commission may choose to turn back the clock on the 16th district, shifting it northwards and making it less overwhelmingly favorable to Democrats.

In this hypothetical, the district would lose heavily Democratic South Brunswick (as well as the small town of Manville for population purposes), and gain the more competitive Bridgewater and Raritan borough. While Princeton would remain in the district, the awkward tendril absorbing South Brunswick would at least be no more.

This new 16th district would both undo the gerrymandering of 2011 and make the district more compact and competitive, two of Carchman’s other criteria. Gov. Phil Murphy, who won the current 16th district by six points, would have won the redrawn version by only 0.3 points, and the district’s Democratic legislators would likely be in for a decade of difficult races.

But such a district would also lock out State Sen. Andrew Zwicker (D-South Brunswick) – another Carchman criterion is preserving incumbents in their own districts when possible – and would negate an intriguing possibility for a majority-minority Central Jersey district.

Right now, the heavily Asian towns around Princeton are split among three different districts, meaning that Asian voters are a significant but outnumbered community in all three. If the commission decides to prioritize unifying minority communities, those towns could be put into one district that has a much stronger Asian voice and vote.

In this alternate redraw, the 16th district’s core of Hillsborough, Montgomery, Princeton, and South Brunswick would be combined with East and West Windsor, Plainsboro, and Hightstown, giving the district a 38% Asian population and possibly paving the way for an Asian plurality within the decade.

Such a district would still preserve the hometowns of Zwicker, Assemblyman Roy Freiman (D-Hillsborough), and Assemblywoman Sadaf Jaffer (D-Montgomery), one of the legislature’s first-ever Asian American women.

But it would also cause significant chaos in surrounding districts – 14th district State Sen. Linda Greenstein lives in Plainsboro, for instance – and, at Murphy +28, would hardly satisfy the criterion of creating competitive districts where possible.

Given the amount of reshuffling that would have to happen if either of these maps came to pass, the true changes to the 16th district will likely be more minor than these proposals suggest. What they show, however, is that any given district might look radically different depending on what Carchman and the commissioners choose to emphasize.

The 12th district and the problems with incumbency

Rivaling the 16th district for awkward construction is the 12th district, which didn’t really exist before 2011 and was instead created from the stray towns other districts left behind.

Stretching from Old Bridge in Middlesex County down through parts of inland Monmouth, Burlington, and Ocean Counties, the district doesn’t represent any clear constituency other than “towns that didn’t fit anywhere else” – something that this year’s commission may try to address as part of its goal to create cohesive, logical districts.

In one hypothetical solution, Old Bridge, Matawan, and Chesterfield are dropped in favor of Marlboro and both Freeholds. This would make the district more geographically concentrated while retaining the same partisanship (both the current district and the hypothetical district are approximately Trump +13). 

Conversely, an alternate solution could base the district around Old Bridge and its surroundings, which would have the side effect of making the district highly competitive.

But both are thorny solutions, because each locks out incumbents – State Sen. Samuel Thompson (R-Old Bridge) and Assemblyman Robert Clifton (R-Matawan) in the former option, and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-Plumsted) in the latter – in contravention of Carchman’s hope that “district disruptions” be limited when possible. The two hypotheticals would also create varying levels of chaos for nearby districts and incumbents. 

The 12th district represents, in microcosm, one of the key challenges the commissioners will face in trying to obey all of Carchman’s criteria. When trying to make more majority-minority districts, or trying to enhance competitiveness, or simply trying to undo awkward districts like the 12th, the commission will have to account for where incumbents already live and the expectations the prior map created.

In other words, while the commission would surely like to be working with a blank slate, in reality they have to deal with the consequences of the previous decade’s map.

The 28th district and the perils of compactness

Visually, probably the strangest pair of districts on the current legislative map are the 28th and 34th districts, which each stretch north-south through the suburbs of Newark. The 28th includes Irvington, Glen Ridge, Bloomfield, Nutley, and part of Newark proper, while the 34th covers Orange, East Orange, Montclair, and Clifton.

If the commission decides that compactness is one of the most important criteria, there’s a much more geographically straightforward way to redraw the two districts. By basing the 28th district in the south and the 34th district in the north – dropping the City of Orange and adding Verona along the way for population-balancing purposes – the two districts become far more contiguous and compact. 

These two redrawn districts also represent clearer communities of interest, with the new 28th covering heavily Black parts of Newark and its close-in majority-Black suburbs, while the new 34th covers the whiter and wealthier suburbs to the north. And while 28th district Assemblyman Ralph Caputo (D-Nutley) and 34th district Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-East Orange) are both displaced from their current districts, they can easily trade places and run in the other’s. 

All in all, this is a solution that creates two compact districts that closely follow most of Carchman’s criteria – ideal, right?

Not quite. The problem with this proposal – and the reason it would never pass muster with the redistricting commission – is that it takes two districts that currently have solid Black pluralities or majorities, and turns them into one overwhelmingly Black seat and one majority-white seat. The current 28th and 34th districts are 57% and 43% Black, respectively, while the redrawn 28th would be 82% Black and the 34th only 14% Black.

Under the current lines, Black voters have the ability to elect candidates of their choice in both districts, and indeed, two of the three legislators from each district are Black. But in trying to fulfill Carchman’s other criteria, the map proposed here would essentially annihilate a Black district and give Black voters less of a say statewide.

This proposal is not meant to be a serious one, but is rather an illustration of how uniting communities of interest and preserving minority representation can sometimes make other parts of the mapmaking process more difficult. Whatever the rest of the commission’s map looks like, the 28th and 34th districts will almost certainly stay intact – and they’ll still be ugly.

The 40th district and the possibility of a win-win scenario

It’s not mentioned in Carchman’s memo, and is in fact antithetical to some of Carchman’s goals, but it is an inevitability that the two parties on the commission will try to draw districts to their own partisan advantage when possible.

In many cases, these are likely to be one-sided missions; Republicans would likely object to Democratic attempts to remove red territory from the 11th district, for example, and Democrats would fight against making the 3rd district more Republican. In select districts, however, there could be compromises that benefit both parties and bypass Carchman entirely.

The 38th and 40th districts in suburban North Jersey are a perfect example. Currently, the 38th is a Democratic district anchored in light blue parts of inland Bergen County, while the Republican-leaning 40th covers Wayne and various parts of Bergen, Passaic, Essex, and Morris Counties.

Both districts have the ability to be competitive in certain scenarios. Murphy won the 38th by only three points last year, and former President Donald Trump carried the 40th by all of 51 votes in 2020.

While most of the current 40th is competitive or light red territory, one town sticks out like a sore thumb: Ridgewood, which voted for President Joe Biden by 34 points and Murphy by 20. Luckily, Ridgewood directly borders the 38th district, and can easily be traded out for the closely divided town of Hawthorne. (In this scenario, the underpopulated 40th district would also gain Oakland and North Haledon from other districts).

Doing so would boost Trump’s margin in the 40th from zero to four points, and Murphy’s margin in the 38th from three to seven points. Each party has a vested interest in making their own incumbents as safe as possible, and even if the trade depicted here might make flipping the opposing party’s district harder, it can still be counted as a win-win.

The map that the commission ends up drawing may be full of changes like this: ones that aren’t improvements or regressions from the current map, but simply represent a subtle reshuffling of the board to make parties and incumbents happy.

A 40-piece puzzle

The six districts discussed here are meant to be representative, but they are hardly exhaustive. They are also meant to be hypotheticals, not suggestions; the real districts the commission creates are unlikely to match any of these proposals.

The important lesson is that with every district they redraw, the commissioners will face the same choices about whether to prioritize compactness, competitiveness, continuity, communities of interest, or myriad other factors, and no district will present simple solutions. 

Just like on the current map, every district will have to be a compromise; one district might be less compact to achieve minority representation, another might protect incumbents at the cost of competitiveness. What a good map will do is balance those compromises across the state, so that different districts achieve different purposes.

Ultimately, it will fall to the commissioners, and Carchman in particular, to make sure that those competing interests are turned into a reasonable and representative map.

“The objective of the apportionment process is to provide a map that is fair to the residents of the state of New Jersey,” Carchman wrote. “Ensuring that result is the charge of the commission and, assuredly, the 11th member.”

He’s got a big task ahead of him.

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