Academics Issue Recommendations for Redistricting in New Jersey

A working group of leading academics and lawyers who have been actively promoting redistricting reform has issued a comprehensive report on reforming the state’s decennial legislative redistricting process.

Report calls for increasing the number of independent members and establishing mapmaking criteria

A working group of leading academics and lawyers who have been active in promoting redistricting reform has issued “Improving New Jersey’s Legislative Apportionment Process,” a comprehensive report on reforming the state’s decennial legislative redistricting process.  The group’s key recommendations include:

●       Retain the bipartisan commission structure, ensuring that commissioners appointed by the parties reflect the state’s diversity.

●       Increase the number of independent commissioners from one to three and appoint them at the start of the apportionment process.

●       Create apportionment guidelines that prioritize communities of interest and partisan fairness but avoid formulaic requirements that impinge on the commission’s ability to balance and reconcile competing principles.

●       Increase opportunities for public comment and extend the period for comment.

●       Facilitate informed public comment with disclosure of precinct and voting data, including digital tools to allow all citizens to offer comments in a timely manner.

The working group was formed early this year in response to legislative efforts to amend the current apportionment process, which ultimately faced opposition from good government and civil rights advocates across the political spectrum. The group’s work took on added impetus after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that left solutions to partisan gerrymandering in the hands of the states.

The report was authored by:

Patrick Murray, Director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

Samuel Wang, Director of Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

Yurij Rudensky, Redistricting Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law

Brigid Callahan Harrison, Professor of Political Science and Law, Montclair State University

Ronald Chen, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University Law School

Ben Williams, Legal Analyst, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

The report recommends maintaining the current bipartisan commission structure, but calls for expanding the number of independent members appointed by the Chief Justice and making those members a part of the process from the outset.  Having a panel of arbiters will help ensure that agreed-upon rules are applied consistently and should result in a more deliberative process. This would be a marked improvement over the current dynamic where each party vies to meet the preferences of a single “tie-breaker.”  The proposed reforms also require the commission to solicit public input over an expanded time period. This will require slightly shifting the state’s primary election calendar in redistricting years, similar to how it is handled in Virginia, which also holds its legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

The report also proposes criteria to guide the commission’s deliberations, emphasizing communities of interest and partisan fairness, while also respecting municipal boundaries – a touchstone in the state’s political culture.  Additionally, the proposal calls for codifying widely accepted standards of equal population and racial representation in the state constitution.

“We have proposed a bold, yet common sense approach to improving the current system. It increases public participation in the process while also addressing concerns raised by legislators who proposed changes last year. Under this plan, the legislative map’s outcome will not hinge on the priorities of a single independent member,” said Murray of Monmouth University.

“New Jersey was a leader in establishing one of the first redistricting commissions. Now that a dozen other states have adopted commissions, we can learn from their experience. If we implement those lessons, we can give all groups and parties a fair shot at representation in Trenton,” said Wang of Princeton University.

“This proposal fuses national best-practices with New Jersey values. The much needed renovation would address the known flaws of the current process while promoting fairness and establishing a system that is community driven and accountable to voters,” said Rudensky of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“Ensuring that New Jersey’s legislature is representative of its citizens begins with improving our redistricting process, so that our redistricting commission is representative of New Jersey’s diversity, and the redistricting process provides for transparency and facilitates public participation,” said Harrison of Montclair State University.

“Fair redistricting will not be achieved through indiscriminate use of formulas or algorithms, but will require a broad-based approach that includes broad and effective public input and the ability to reconcile often competing redistricting principles,” said Chen of Rutgers University, the former New Jersey Public Advocate.

“In recent decades, states have enacted bold reforms to make their redistricting processes transparent and open to all. Adopting the best practices from those systems would bring New Jersey to the forefront of the national movement for fair districts,” said Williams of Princeton University.

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