Tomorrow, 13 people will decide the configuration of New Jersey’s 12 congressional districts for the next five election cycles. In reality, of course, the decision rests with just one person: former Attorney General John Farmer, who will likely choose between the final proposals of the six-member Democratic delegation and the six-member Republican delegation. If legislative redistricting is any indication, we’ll know whose map will be selected long before we know what either party’s proposal looks like.
Before the lawmakers actually take a final vote, there will a brief debate over the proposals. This debate is a mere formality. Nobody will be persuaded to change his vote on the plan. The commission won’t adopt or even vote any amendments to make either proposal better. The outcome of the vote at the end of this meaningless debate will surprise no one.
There will be no opportunity for public comment. While the Commission did hold a few meetings before ensconcing themselves in the Heldrich Hotel in New Brunswick to fight out the details of the map, few members of the public attended this meeting. The small crowds were understandable, given that the stakes were exactly zero at the time; the commission had not even proposed a map. Members of the public could offer only general statements, most of which we’ve heard before: Don’t split town A. The map should account for growth in minority group B in this or that part of the state. Districts should be compact. Congressman C is so wonderful; please keep him in my district. Districts should be more competitive.
These early-meeting comments may have found attentive ears and acquiescing nods, but they have doubtless long since been forgotten. Those who managed to put a close ally on the commission can still influence the process. But anyone else who wants to weigh in at this decisive stage must do so either through back channels or through the (old or new) media. Of course, commentary now is not much more useful than commentary at public meetings, unless you know what the Commission is actually up to. Citizens cannot make informed and relevant comments on proposals they have never seen. Again, those who don’t have insider access must rely on rumors and speculation. The Commission does not have to make any proposal public until the decision has already been made.
If just about any other governmental entity in this state enacted a rule or ordinance in such an opaque and secretive manner, the courts would probably strike it down for egregious violations of the state’s Open Public Meetings Act (or Administrative Procedure Act, as the case may be). But the Commission enjoys an exemption from public meetings laws. There’s no good reason for this exemption. Members of the public should have the opportunity to weigh in on real proposals before they’re enacted. A task so important should not be insulated from public comment.
Redistricting would work better when done in the sunshine. At the very least, the legislature should amend the Open Public Meetings Act to cover the congressional and legislative redistricting commissions. Even better, the entire process should be changed so that incumbent and partisan interests don’t control it so much. This way, the result will better reflect what’s best for New Jersey.