Democrats controlling the New Jersey Legislature last week started rushing through a constitutional amendment that would change election districts to secure them a permanent majority in power.
Apparently it isn’t enough that N.J. Democrats have had majorities in the state Senate and Assembly since 2002. They want to replace the state’s reasonably fair redistricting process with one that would give them a strong advantage for at least a decade.
Last week the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted — needless to say along party lines — to change how legislative districts are redrawn after every federal census (with the next in 2021).
Democrats want to compel future bipartisan redistricting commissions to base their maps for Assembly and state Senate districts on past statewide votes for U.S. president, N.J. governor and U.S. senators. That would ensure that Democrats, who have dominated these statewide elections in recent years, get local election districts that boost their dominance in the Legislature.
The effect would be especially detrimental to residents of South Jersey, which is more independent and conservative than the north and its big cities. Districts would be redrawn to reflect the northern dominance of Democrats, not this region’s more diverse politics and public voices.
This shameless attempt to rig the election process for party advantage was quickly opposed by virtually every good government group.
The League of Women Voters called the proposal “undemocratic.” The Brennan Center for Justice said, “Attempting to mandate political outcomes is not the best way to reform redistricting — and, in fact, could open the door to gerrymandering.” The state chapter of the NAACP said “this proposal will virtually ensure the voting power of communities of color will be diluted for decades to come.” The Princeton University Gerrymandering Project determined the proposal “would drastically reduce the number of seats for the minority party in a way most New Jerseyans would consider unfair.”
The amendment has even been opposed by the Center for American Progress, a progressive national Democratic policy group, which called it “a major step in the wrong direction … a process where politicians decide who they want to represent.”
Gov. Phil Murphy called the push “a classic throw something out in the proverbial backrooms. It’s completely unacceptable.” He also has a personal reason to oppose the constitutional amendment, which would go before voters next November if it clears the Legislature. It would take redistricting power from a close ally, the chairman of the Democratic State Committee, and give it to legislators who often oppose the governor.
Under the amendment, the appointees to the redistricting commission by the party chairmen would be reduced from 10 to four. For the first time, party leaders in the state Senate and Assembly would appoint members — eight between them. And at least four members of the commission would have to be state legislators, which can only make the process more political.
We understand that in a state with one-party rule, there will be and even should be disputes within that one party. But Democrats must work out their internal power struggles without undermining New Jersey democracy for decades to come.
The vote on the amendment, expected Dec. 17, will be a test of the independence and public accountability of area Democratic legislators. They and the rest of the Legislature should reject this quest for permanent power that undermines fair and meaningful elections.