Following an outcry from the public and elected officials, a series of bills to amend New Jersey’s constitution that would have changed the guidelines for legislative redistricting were scrapped by Senate President Steve Sweeney before any hearings.
The bills, SCR152 and ACR205, would have appeared as a referendum on the upcoming November ballot.
In accord with most other Democrats in the upper house, Hudson County Senators Nicholas Sacco and Brian Stack vocally opposed the bills.
Sacco and Stack serve as mayors of North Bergen and Union City in addition to representing their districts in Hudson County. Both stated to sources that they believed the change would result in an imbalance of power that would dilute representation of local communities.
Critics claim the new formula could have opened up significant potential for gerrymandering in the 2021 redistricting cycle to follow the 2020 U.S. Census. The bills took flak from Senate Republicans across the board, a number of senate Democrats, and several activist organizations including the NAACP and League of Women Voters.
Opponents to the formula change are poised to challenge any measures to put a similar referendum question on the next November ballot, in time for the 2021 redistricting cycle.
The part of the scrapped formula that caused the most controversy was that districts would be determined by party affiliation, exclusively in statewide (president, governor, U.S. Senate) elections. The bill would require 25 percent of New Jersey’s districts to be “competitive.”
“Competitive” is defined in the bill as close to the average of statewide elections over the past ten years. The Democratic party holds a 57 percent popular vote in state elections over the past decade.
Analysts at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project said: “This is misleading terminology, since most people would consider ‘competitive’ to mean districts closer to 50-50. If a tie-breaking commissioner were persuaded to choose such a plan, one party would be placed at a serious disadvantage.”
The analysts determined that Democrats would be able to convert their 57 percent popular support into 70 percent of state legislative seats under the new formula.
The will of the people?
Gov.Phil Murphy, who would have held no veto power over the concurrent bills, said “Voters should choose their elected officials, not the other way around. This proposal is bad for our democracy, period.”
Helen Kioukis, a spokeswoman for the League of Women Voters, said in a Senate meeting “Communities of interest become afterthoughts, and are only considered as a tie-breaking mechanism between plans that prioritize partisanship data over the will of the people. This is not how we achieve ‘fair’ new maps.”
Mike Montemarano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.