Let the Redistricting Games Begin

The United  States Constitution is pretty succinct on the requirements for a decennial census:

The actual enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States, and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct. (Article 1, Section 2)

This sounds simple in theory, but in practice, this clause requires each state to go through what has turned out to be an often contentious, politically-driven kabuki dance. The “gerrymandering” that we learned about in middle school has been supplanted by “packing” and “cracking” of electoral districts as the maps are drawn. (These terms are explained below.)

Making this even more interesting for New Jersey residents is the fact that we are one of the few states that holds state-wide elections on odd years, severely cutting down the time that the advocates and citizens across the political spectrum have to debate the district lines. The Census Bureau is scheduled to release New Jersey’s data next week, and the reapportionment commission has approximately two months to finish its work.

In a majority of states, the new district boundaries are developed by the legislature. Here in the Garden State, there is a ten-member commission whose charter is to accomplish that task. The commission consists of five Democrats and five Republicans (almost entirely current or former elected officials) and is co-chaired by the respective state party leaders – John Wisniewski for the Democrats and newly anointed chairman Jay Webber for the GOP.

By law, the commission has thirty days to come up with a new map that meets federal and state laws and theoretically satisfies both major political parties. The new districts must reflect the shift of the state’s population from the northeast to the south.

Since the commission is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, the chances of an agreement are, as they say in advanced mathematical statistics, “slim to none.”

But fear not – the powers-that-be are realistic, and have taken this into account. Any time within the thirty days, the commission can declare an impasse. At that time, the Chief Justice, Stuart Rabner, will appoint an eleventh member who can cast a deciding vote. (It was emphasized at a recent meeting of the commission that this eleventh member is more than just a tie-breaker, but he or she should attempt to work out a compromise map with the partisan commissioners.)

Both parties have advocated transparency and openness in the process, and have espoused  the concept of holding a series of hearings where members of the general public can express their concerns to the commissioners.

The first such meeting was conducted this morning at Rutgers – Camden, and a companion meeting was held (which I did not attend) in Toms River this afternoon. The two party co-chairs conducted the meeting, although Chairman Wisniewski was clearly running it. All of the commissioners with the exception of Assembly Speaker Sheila Oliver were present. The large meeting room on campus was packed with several hundred people and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (who is not a member of the commission) made a cameo appearance.

Chairman Wisniewski announced that in the interest of openness, all of the Commission’s proceedings and transcripts will be posted on a web site (www.apportionmentcommission.org) starting this Friday. And while both Webber and Wisniewski purported to work to find common ground, I don’t think anyone in the audience or on the panel thought this goal was within the realm of realism.

Members of the public were invited to testify and allowed to speak for ten minutes each.  The tone was civil, with partisans including Progressive Democrats, Tea Party members, ethnic advocacy groups, labor unions, and farmers. The only real excitement came when one woman challenged the commissioners in what Jane Roh of the Courier Post tweeted as a “Howard Beale moment.” (more on this later)

The first to testify were the Camden County political troika of Norcross, Fuentes, and Wilson, each of whom emphasized the diversity of the fifth district and the desire to maintain that attribute in any new district map.

Some of the most valuable testimony came from Ingrid Reed of the Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics. Reed pointed out that in the current districting scheme, 37 out of the 40 districts are essentially non-competitive, and she would like to see the maps drawn to ensure that more districts have real races in the future.

Several advocacy groups from Hispanic and African-American communities emphasized the need for adequate representation. Hispanics, especially, have grown in population since the last census and are not just concentrated in the traditional urban areas. One testifier pointed out that Cumberland County is 25% Hispanic. Most of the ethnic advocacy groups warned against “cracking” and “packing” during the map generation process.  “Cracking” is the process of breaking up blocks of ethnic minorities into multiple districts to minimize their influence in any one district. “Packing” is the process of lumping large blocks of ethnic minorities into a single district, thus minimizing their power in adjacent districts.

Some voter-advocacy groups were disenchanted with the entire process, accusing the commission of a conflict of interest because they are elected officials. The advocates claimed that the elected officials were choosing their constituents instead of the other way around. They would prefer more power in the hands of the voters in determining district boundaries. A prisoner advocate lamented the fact that prisoners (who cannot vote) are counted in the district where the prison is located, taking away influence from their home district.

The unions warned that by law, the districts must be apportioned strictly by the Census results, and not weighted by the number of people who actually voted in past elections.

Voter advocates proposed public hearings on the final map of new districts before their submittal to the governor and secretary of state for certification. There was almost universal dissatisfaction with the short (72-hour) notice of today’s hearings. (The GOP only recently agreed to hold these sessions), and advocates asked for a calendar of future meetings throughout the 60-day period. Several testifiers pleaded for the yet-to-be-named eleventh commission member to be a part of these hearings so that person could hear all of the testimony.

The aforementioned Howard Beale moment came when one woman representing the “New Jersey 2011 Project” passionately pointed out that the testimony from “special interest” groups came before that of ordinary citizens. She railed about how money from South Jersey goes to the north and that people in the center of South Jersey (i.e. between the Delaware River towns and the Shore towns) are allegedly underrepresented. Her histrionics attracted the interest of every print reporter in the room.

There was a bit of political drama after everyone had a chance to testify. Jay Webber, the GOP co-chair, made a motion to hold three more public meetings in early February, one each in Newark, Jersey City, and Passaic County. Chairman Wisniewski would agree to that only if the presumptive eleventh member could attend. (Both parties assume that Professor Alan Rosenthal will be asked by Judge Rabner to be that commissioner.) Since Webber would not agree to this, the vote on party lines did not garner the six-vote majority required, and was defeated.

So the process has started. Political junkies are having a field day. Unfortunately, this process, which will influence key issues like jobs, taxes, marriage equality, and infrastructure for the next ten years, is not on most New Jerseyan’s radar screen. It’s up to people like you, who read this blog, to help get  the word out to more citizens and get them involved in the political process – and not just on election day. That’s what makes our democracy strong.


Comments (11)

  1. Jay Lassiter

    i esp love the pics.  

  2. Bertin Lefkovic

    …advocate against both “cracking” and “packing”?  It seems that they would have to advocate for one or the other.  Was anything of consequence said about the commission’s intentions with regards to redistricting?

    Not to be nitpicky, but this was a meeting of the legislative redistricting commission. They will only be dealing with the redrawing the boundaries of the state’s 40 legislative districts.  The congressional redistricting commission, which consists of a different group of 5 Democrats and 5 Republicans, will draw the boundaries of the state’s 12 legislative districts.

    I wonder if there is anything in either federal or state law that would allow the New Jersey’s new legislative district map to go into effect with the 2013 elections rather than the 2011 elections.  They could still be in effect over a 10-year period, but instead of that period being from 2011 to 2021, it would be from 2013 to 2023.

    There is simply not enough time to incorporate the changes to the legislative district map that will made in such a way that will allow individuals to make important decisions about running or not running.  It gives incumbents and others closely associated with the party organizations too much of an advantage over far less established and organized insurgents.

    Instead, the congressional redistricting commission should be working right now to draw the new congressional map ASAP so that the county committees that hold elections this year and who will be awarding ther party lines next year can know the makeup of the map before this year’s primary election filing deadline.

    Following the 2011 elections, which should be based on the current legislative district map, the Assembly, Senate, and state party committees could elect its leadership, which would appoint the members of the legislative redistricting commission, which would be required to draw the new legislative district map no less than 60 days prior to the filing deadline of next year’s primary elections so that the county committees who will elect their members next year and who will award their party lines the following year have enough time to organize their slates.

    Obviously a change like this is not going to happen for this decade, but, once again, it would be great if progressives could be more engaged, forward-thinking, and organized so that we could work towards making something like this happen next decade.

  3. Hopeful

    Admittedly there wasn’t much turnover in the last election but I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.

  4. Jeff Doshna

    Just adding my $0.02 that this comprehensive report was exactly what I wanted to read, not being able to make any of the “public” meetings.

    The computer-based mapping tools (called Geographic Information Systems or GIS) that experts have used to draw maps since at least the 1990 census have undergone some huge improvements over the last 10 years.  As a result desktop-GIS and web-based-GIS tools that are available to your average progressive activist will enable us to offer viable alternative districting plans with relative ease.  

    All that we really need is the tract-level census data.  Yesterday, the Census Bureau announced how they will announce that release.  Once we have the data, there is a great potential for citizen activists to become part of the process.

    I also wouldn’t count out the Rutgers folks — Alan Rosenthal and Ingrid Reed of Eagleton, and other faculty at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy — to provide a good balance and fair proposals.

  5. Nora's Tea Party

    Author.. You said “Her histrionics attracted the interest of every print reporter in the room.”

    Well, you wouldn’t recognize reality if it bit you in the NOSE.   As I can tell you first hand “her histrionics” just happened to be ANGER!

    Angry that POLITICIANS play their stupid GAMES with OUR lives!   Angry that though getting there FIRST to get a place in “line” you get put LAST because you are NOT a special interest that sucks up and licks dem’s boots.

    Also,  bit ticked at  YOUR failure to report things accurately.   Webber suggested the meeting dates be published.    The Dem guy ADDED A CONDITION!!    Pure political gamesmanship!   Disgusting to the general public and so obvious as to be pathetic.

    All the DEM’s voted to NOT PUBLISH meeting dates.  Now there’s a real public service oriented position.

    Webber did not say Rosenthall should not be invited.   What he said was the invite could be extended, but to the public he said the commission could not guarantee he would accept.    

    He also said that if the 11 member is formally appointed the “rules” then stipulate only 30 will remain to get the job done.   Nor could anyone guarantee that the SC would appoint Rosenthall.  

    All in all a pretty disgusting performance by the Democrats.  Typical political maneuvering with zero concern for what the public wants.

    AND.. there were Hispanic groups there who are just a bit pissed their votes have been diluted by the last gerrymandering exercise the Dem’s did so they were DENIED the representation they would have had if they had their own districts, instead of having their neighborhoods pulled apart and tacked on to  districts.

    We’re watching y’all.   So far in the Tea Parties eyes the Dem’s are not showing as being “for the people”, just for themselves, as usual..  

    And YES, it’s time South Jersey rural areas had their own district, and were not connected to those coastal cities where the slum lords rule…   We’re pretty much sick of y’all by this time and deserve our own assemblyman, and senators.

    So how about you try to report accurately and lay off the spin doctor stuff..   Oh.. sorry.. that’s not how you work.. how foolish of me.    


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