New Jersey redistricting reform blasted as gerrymandering power grab

New Jersey Democrats' proposed constitutional amendment to solidify their party’s hold is prompting outraged objections among redistricting reformers who see the measure as a blatant power grab.

Legislators meeting in Trenton hold their first hearing Thursday on the proposed amendment, which would hand the state legislature new power to control the makeup of a bipartisan redistricting board that draws new boundaries every 10 years.

That bipartisan board includes five Democrats and five Republicans, each appointed by the heads of the two state parties. An 11th, independent member is chosen to pick between maps drawn by the Democratic and Republican committee members.

But the new proposal would have legislative leaders, rather than the state parties, choose committee members.

“Currently unaccountable people have too much power in the process,” Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald (D), the amendment’s sponsor, wrote in an op-ed Thursday. “Two unelected people should not be authorized to decide how roughly nine million New Jerseyans are represented in the legislature.”

The amendment would require the state board to follow a “fairness test,” which would draw districts in proportion to the state’s overall political performance. In New Jersey, where registered Democrats far outnumber registered Republicans, that test virtually guarantees a Democratic majority for years to come.

“A handful of politicians have demonstrated an alarming willingness to forsake the delicate fabric of the state’s democracy by advancing a redistricting amendment that benefits them and them alone,” said Doug Steinhardt, the chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party.

Even some Democrats who advocate for a fairer redistricting process said the New Jersey proposal was an overreach.

“As we’ve seen in states around the country this year, the American people want redistricting reforms that help level the playing field so that elections are decided on who has the best ideas, not which party was in charge of drawing the lines,” said Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderThe most important pledge Democratic presidential candidates can make Congress and contempt: What you need to know The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats wonder: Can Nadler handle the Trump probe? MORE, a former attorney general under President Obama who now heads the National Democratic Redistricting Committee.

“Any proposed reforms should put the interests of the people ahead of politicians and improve the current redistricting process in each state,” Holder said. “As currently constructed, the proposal in New Jersey fails to live up to those standards.”

Democrats are moving the legislation at what amounts to the last possible moment.

Any constitutional amendment in New Jersey must first be passed by the legislature in two consecutive years before it goes to a statewide vote. Passing the measure in December, and then again in January, would satisfy the consecutive year requirement, allowing the measure to be placed on the 2019 ballot.

New Jersey holds its legislative and gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years. As a consequence, the state manages the redistricting process a year ahead of other states, so that new district lines can be in place in time for the 2021 elections.

Democrats have made big gains in New Jersey in recent years. The party controls 25 of 40 seats in the state Senate, and 54 of 80 seats in the Assembly. In the 2018 midterm elections, Democrats captured four Republican-held U.S. House seats, giving them 11 of the state’s 12 congressional representatives.

The new proposal would help Democrats solidify those gains in the long run, opponents said.

It also highlights a growing schism between the Garden State’s two most powerful Democratic politicians.

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy controls the state Democratic Party, and therefore the members of the redistricting commission. Murphy has had a contentious relationship with Stephen Sweeney, the state Senate president.

Murphy and Sweeney feuded last year about tax increases needed to balance the state budget, trading increasingly bitter shots over who was less willing to compromise. Sweeney was angry when an outside group that backs Murphy began running advertisements pressuring lawmakers to break Murphy’s way on the budget impasse.

The proposed amendment would take the power to appoint committee members out of the governor’s hands and vest it with the legislature — a victory for Sweeney, if voters give the sign-off.