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.)
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)
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.