NJ Democrats Weigh Changing How Legislative Districts Are Drawn

new jersey districts
New Jersey’s state capitol building in Trenton.

New Jersey’s Democrat-led Legislature is considering asking voters to approve overhauling how the state draws its legislative districts.

The Assembly and Senate budget and appropriations committees are holding a joint hearing Monday on a proposed constitutional amendment that first surfaced in 2015 but failed to advance.

Republicans and a prominent political pollster criticize the Democratic proposal as a “sham” and an attempt to fool voters into supporting legislative maps that favor Democrats.

The proposal calls for requiring “fair representation.” That means a district “shall be” more favorable to a political party if that party had a higher percentage of votes in contests for president, senator and governor in the preceding decade.

Democrats outnumber Republicans by more than 900,000 voters and tend to vote at higher levels in presidential election years.

Republicans say the change would inevitably result in Democrats tightening their grip on legislative power. They currently control 54 seats in the Assembly to Republicans’ 26, and 25 Senate posts, compared with 15 for the GOP.

“The constitutional amendment proposed by New Jersey Democrats is not about making our elections fairer or legislative districts more competitive,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean Jr. said in a statement. “This sham of an amendment is about power.”

A spokeswoman for Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said he is declining to comment. A message for Senate President Steve Sweeney was not returned.

Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, testified against the proposal when it was up for a vote in the previous legislative session.

“This is a bald-faced attempt to pull the wool over voters’ eyes, making them complicit in a process that will only serve to increase their cynicism about politics,” he wrote in an op-ed in 2016.

The measure would make other changes, as well.

It would increase from 11 to 13 the number of members on the state’s reapportionment commission, which is charged with drawing the state’s 40 legislative districts — each of which sends two people to the Assembly and one to the Senate.

Instead of the Democratic and Republican state party chairs selecting five members apiece, with a tie-breaker selected by the chief justice of the Supreme Court, the proposal calls for allowing the Senate president, the Assembly speaker and the minority leaders in each chamber to select two members apiece. The chief justice would still select the tiebreaker.

The proposal would also require that the commission hold at least three public hearings and that at least 10 districts be competitive, as based on party performance in previous statewide elections.

New Jersey reconsiders its legislative districts after the federal census every 10 years.

The question would go on the ballot next year only if approved by three-fifths of each chamber this year, or by simple majorities both this year and next year.

The governor is not required to weigh in on a proposed amendment.

The party has been on an upswing recently, winning this year’s Senate contest and flipping four GOP-held seats to Democratic control, leaving Republicans with only one House member.

The last Republican to win statewide office was Chris Christie in 2013.

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