FACING OUTRAGE from the left and the right, New Jersey Democrats pulled a noxious gerrymandering bill from consideration over the weekend, killing the measure for now. The delay, said state Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney, will give legislators time to take and review input on the proposal. Here’s ours: Don’t bring this up again.
The New Jersey episode highlights the difficulty of fighting gerrymandering when elected leaders are tempted to choose their own voters. The state was an early adopter of a bipartisan redistricting committee; voters amended New Jersey’s constitution in 1966 to require state legislative districts to be drawn by an apportionment commission split equally between the two parties. A nonpartisan appointee selected by New Jersey’s Supreme Court chief justice breaks ties. Though imperfect, the system is still preferable to that in states such as Maryland, North Carolina and Wisconsin, where state lawmakers themselves drew hyperpartisan electoral maps in the most recent round of redistricting.
But even New Jersey’s voter-mandated constitutional requirements did not dissuade state legislative leaders from trying to warp the system for partisan advantage. They proposed using a tricky maneuver to put a new constitutional amendment on the ballot without any buy-in from Republicans. The amendment would have given elected politicians more control over the apportionment commission. Worse, it would have commanded the commission to produce an electoral map with “competitive” districts that would not, in fact, have been very competitive. The system would have been so tilted that it would have allowed Democrats to “convert 57% of statewide popular support to 70% of seats,” according to Princeton University’s Gerrymandering Project.
Commentators have pointed out that the Democrats hardly needed the assist in New Jersey, where they boast durable majorities in the state legislature. It was not worth sacrificing the high ground on gerrymandering that Democratic leaders and activists are trying to claim. Maryland’s indefensible Democratic gerrymander would have looked less like an outlier and more like the party’s standard practice, as extreme gerrymandering has increasingly become among Republicans. Moreover, it is smarter for Democrats to resist fighting fire with fire. They can take steps such as increasing access to the polls, modernizing registration procedures, improving voting systems and ensuring decent civil rights enforcement — all things that would be healthy for democracy and likely benefit Democrats, too.
Yet the lesson if New Jersey Democrats attempt to rig the rules would be that, as long as elected lawmakers see opportunities for political advantage in legislative line-drawing, it will be hard to restrain them from pursuing those opportunities. Even in places where redistricting commissions have been imposed, state leaders will be tempted to warp them or roll them back. It is a point that should encourage Congress to restrict gerrymandering in maps for federal elections. The Supreme Court may also want to contemplate this reality as it considers whether the Constitution places any limits on partisan gerrymandering.