A rally of nonpartisans, progressives and left-leaning advocates representing about 50 groups stood in the cold and roundly condemned a proposed constitutional amendment that would change how New Jersey redraws its legislative voting districts.
“No one but the Democratic leaders support this proposal. The bill will make it even harder than it already is for voters to choose their elected officials, and, once they’re elected, to hold them accountable,” said Dena Mottola Jaborska, associate director of New Jersey Citizen Action.
Currently, state party chairs pick the commission that redraws legislative districts. The amendment would add selections by state Senate and Assembly leaders from both parties and direct them to use a formula based on past statewide elections to determine district boundaries.
In a blue state like Jersey, that could yield a significant advantage for Democrats to control more than half the districts, according to Monmouth University Polling Institute Director Patrick Murray.
“The formula is designed to create a gerrymander, but it looks like you can design it either way. There are a lot of unintended consequences here, and this is what happens when you do things in a back room with only a few voices involved,” Murray said.
“Giving a small group of legislators the power to cherry pick not only their own voters, but voters for every district in the state is a recipe for a system where all power rests with a handful of party bosses,” said Meredith Misenheimer from South Jersey Women for Progressive Change.
Advocates also warned the amendment could carve up districts to dilute the power of minority voters, according to the Brennan Center‘s Jim Johnson.
“It doesn’t protect the integrity of communities of color,” he said. “It doesn’t take steps to make sure that communities that have been disenfranchised are included in the process.”
The protesters moved inside later where two simultaneous public hearings unfolded, forcing witnesses to run between Senate and Assembly committees on different floors. Co-sponsor Sen. Nick Scutari went through a PowerPoint presentation, arguing the amendment would make redistricting more fair. His message to stakeholders?
“I hope that they read the constitutional amendment for themselves rather than just knee-jerk reacting to what it is and using words like ‘gerrymandering’ and other things to suggest that there’s something nefarious in this bill, which simply are not in the bill. They’re simply not in the bill. It’s a codification of what’s been done before. It is an expansion of the process of the selection of the commission members, and essentially, that’s it,” Scutari said.
“Look, this is a power grab. This democratic organization wants to keep power for the rest of the century in New Jersey. That’s not how we do it in democracy,” said Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick.
Republicans wasted no time ripping the proposal apart, saying the formula clearly favors Democrats.
“That’s gerrymandering. That is the definition of finding a way to draw lines that favor one party or the other,” said Sen. Chris Brown. “And quite frankly it would be just as horrific to me if the Republicans were trying to do it.”
Gov. Phil Murphy vehemently opposes the proposal. To legally get it on the November ballot next year without the required three-fifths majority vote in the Legislature, sponsors will try to pass it with two simple majority votes that will take place in December, and again in early 2019 — a procedural end-run.
“If this thing does go through, next year is going to be a very ugly Assembly election because it’s the only thing happening in the country. Republican money’s going to be pouring in and they’ll paint Democrats here as hypocrites on the gerrymandering front,” Murray said.
Even if these measures do end up on the November ballot, expect these groups to mount a massive public relations campaign aimed at convincing voters to turn thumbs down.