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N.J. redistricting process can be improved

leerichard_optBY RICHARD A. LEE
COMMENTARY

The immediate impact of New Jersey’s new legislative map has produced a flurry of activity among members of the State Senate and Assembly.

Legislators are retiring, moving out of their hometowns, shifting their election campaigns from the Assembly to the Senate (and vice versa), and trying to win a game of political musical chairs that is being played in districts that now have more incumbents than open seats.

For the most part, the dust will settle by April 11, the filing deadline for this fall’s elections. But maybe we should not be so quick to relegate the contentious issue of redistricting to the backburner for another decade. Why not take some time now – while redistricting and all its flaws and shortcomings are still fresh in our minds – to see how the process can be improved for the next round of legislative map-making?

Just think about the current system, and it will not take long to reach the conclusion that there has to a better way.

For example, every 10 years, once new Census figures are available, the process begins with each of the chairs of the two major political parties appointing five members to the State Apportionment Commission, which is charged with drawing 40 new legislative districts to reflect the new Census numbers. That means five Democrats and five Republicans are expected to agree on a map that will shape New Jersey’s political landscape for the next 10 years. It is a bit like asking the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox to reach a gentlemanly agreement on which team should win the American League East.

When the inevitable occurs and the commission finds itself deadlocked, the process calls for the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court to appoint an eleventh member as a tie-breaker. As a result, the vote of one person ultimately determines whether the new map will be more favorable to Democrats or Republicans. Continuing with the baseball analogy, this is akin to two teams playing to a tie after nine innings and then allowing an umpire to decide which one should be declared the winner of the game.

In addition, under the existing system, each of the 10 original members of the commission has a vested interest – either directly or indirectly – in the outcome of its work. This is not a recipe for producing a map in the best interests of New Jersey’s 8.7 million residents. Instead, it creates the potential for gerrymandering, political paybacks, and districts that all but guarantee incumbents will be re-elected.

And let’s not forget that, at a time when citizens are demanding more transparency in government, state law exempts the Apportionment Commission from New Jersey’s Open Public Meetings Act.

Finding flaws in the current system is easy; identifying a better way to tackle redistricting is a much greater challenge, but here are a few suggestions to get the ball rolling on improving the process:

  • The State Apportionment Commission should be restructured and made as non-political as is reasonably possible. Take the two major political parties and their chairs out of the process. Give a role to some of New Jersey’s ordinary citizens – the folks the politicians always refer to when they talk about families sitting at the kitchen table and making decisions on how to make ends meet. We rely on citizens for juries that decide if people are guilty or innocent and whether they should be sent to jail. Surely, we can entrust them with drawing a map.
  • Tap the expertise within our academic community. New Jersey colleges and universities have hundreds of brilliant scholars. State government should make better use of the experts who work in our higher education institutions. Certainly, there are professors with the Socratic ability to determine how 40 sets of boundaries can be fairly drawn.
  • Put some young people on the commission. The map will be in place for a decade, and it should reflect the input of those who are New Jersey’s newest voters and may have fresh ideas on politics and government.
  • Make better use of computers. Machines are not perfect, as anyone who has ever been misdirected by a GPS device knows. Nevertheless, technology can do amazing things today. Redistricting needs a human element, but computers can help build a strong foundation for the work involved in producing a quality legislative map.

Improving the redistricting process will not be an easy task, but we have a decade to work at it. But first we must decide whether we truly want to make the process better, or if we simply want to put the existing system back into its box and not open it again for another 10 years.

Listen to a podcast on this topic.

Richard A. Lee is Communications Director of Hall Institute. A former State House reporter and Deputy Communications Director for the Governor, he also teaches courses in media, politics and government at Rutgers University, where he is completing work on a Ph.D. in media studies. Read more of Rich’s columns at richleeonline.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter.

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