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What New Jersey’s Redistricting Amendment Does – And Doesn’t – Do

December 2nd, 2018, 9:42pm by Sam Wang


New Jersey has gotten into the mix with redistricting reform. A constitutional amendment has been introduced to change the rules for how districts will be drawn. Far from being a good-government bill, the proposed legislation is a recipe for volatility – and contains a loophole that would allow either party to commit an extreme gerrymander.

Last week, Senator Tom Kean Jr. (R) wrote an opinion piece decrying the legislation. He got some points right. For example, he’s correct that good-government groups, social justice groups and academics all have concerns about the bill. The Princeton Gerrymandering Project’s Ben Williams and Will Adler testified in Trenton at a hearing last week. Their entire statement is here.

However, Senator Kean is not quite right that it’s an effective power grab by Democrats. For that purpose, it’s poorly designed. Indeed, it has a loophole that could allow Republicans to commit a gerrymander against Democrats as early as 2021.

We’re currently preparing a deep-dive analysis of the legislation (Senate Concurrent Resolution 43 / Assembly Concurrent Resolution 205). Here are our central points:

  • The legislation doesn’t guarantee a Democratic advantage. But it does give cover to anyone who wants to commit a gerrymander, by providing standards that give the appearance of fairness.
  • Under this legislation, Democrats or Republicans could still draw lines to their advantage. We have examples that prove this. Either side would even have an argument to the independent tiebreaking commissioner that they were simply following the law to a maximum extent.
  • Gerrymanders can be camouflaged by calling close but reliable wins “competitive” – which is misleading.¬†And close, reliable wins across the board are how a party cements an advantage for itself. Because the independent commissioner can pick either side’s map, it turns redistricting into a giant coin toss.
  • It creates incentives for either party to weaken all incumbents, including its own incumbents. They would be rewarded for taking risks in search of a big win. Some competition is good, but this legislation would reward volatility. For example, we have identified a list of districts whose Democratic incumbents would become pawns for their own party to push around, in search of a partisan advantage.

More than anything, this legislation is a missed opportunity. If it passes, it takes the place of genuinely good reform. And that’s a loss for all New Jerseyans.

Watch this space – and gerrymander.princeton.edu – for our later postings on this bill.

Tags: 2006 Elections · Redistricting

2 Comments so far ↓

  • LondonYoung

    The more I read about gerrymandering – detecting it and stopping it – the more I feel that we are standing on shaky ground. This new NJ bill really makes me feel this way.

    I have worked for years with the innumerate and it is very hard to convince them that you are not trying to trick them whenever you whip out something as simple as a mean or a median.

    I was thinking that perhaps Prof. Zelizer could write something about districting – its history, the English parliament, the colonial era, its place in our republic, and various philosophies about what is desirable in districting – all without invoking any math. One thing to mention in such an essay is the concept of a slate of representatives. New Jersey elects its presidential electors as a slate and, in fact, used to elect all its congresspeople as a single party slate. Our society seems to be still OK with presidential slates but not congressional slates. Why is that? Among other things, districting assigns one rep to each voter. A voter is effected two ways – how they feel about their own rep, and how they feel about the mix of reps that make up the congress. What should we want from all this?

    Anyway, I am being too wordy. What I want to say is that if we have a math-free guide from a political historian on what good districting might be then, when the math tornado whirls by, we can compare the results to the good districting concepts.

    Just thinking aloud …

  • Sally G

    I encourage folks interested in gerrymandering issues to check out redistrictinggame.org; you get to try your hand at gerrymandering for either of the 2 main parties, for good (compliance with voter rights act) or evil (purely partisan) and it gives you a sense of both the complexity of redistricting and how it can be manipulated.

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