Jesse Burns of the New Jersey League of Women Voters has been working for years to stop the backroom deals that are made when the state re-draws its legislative district map every 10 years. When she found out who was appointed to this year’s commission, she said — once again — she was sorely disappointed.
“Like, oh great, I’ve been trying so hard and this is what this boils down to,” Burns said.
This time around, all ten appointees — five Democrats and five Republicans — have direct ties to the most influential party machines in the state.
The New Jersey Apportionment Commission sets the boundaries for each legislative district, utilizing data from the U.S. Census. Those boundaries determines whether a district has more Democrats or more Republicans, and whether racial and ethnic communities are broken up or held together. Burns also coordinates Fair Districts New Jersey, a coalition working to move the redistricting process from behind closed doors and into the open.
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“There's no ordinary voter in this state that would look at who was appointed... and what political string they're tied to and say ‘Yes, that process seems like that accurately represents my best interests.’”
The Democratic appointees include allies of South Jersey boss George Norcross, and representatives of the Middlesex, Essex, Hudson, and Bergen County organizations. Burns’s Fair Districts coalition is also upset there’s only two women on the commission, and not a single member who is from the Latinx community.
Patricia Campos Medina, of Latinas United for Political Empowerment, has long fought for more political representation.
“They know where our growth is and they want to control where to put those voters,” Campos Medina said. “I think that the fact that they haven't even reached out to have these conversations with Latino leaders is just very disappointing.”
The redrawing of legislative district maps is key to better representation because minority voters can be split up between districts, diluting their political power, Campos Medina said. She said she feels let down by Governor Phil Murphy, a progressive who initially fought how the commission would be chosen. Instead, Campos Medina said it appears the governor has just given up.
“It's just baffling,” she said. “We thought he was a progressive and somebody who will go against a system that excludes our voices.” Now, she thinks the governor has become just another insider.
Murphy was asked about the lack of Latinx representation on the commission at a recent press briefing.
“I acknowledge and take the question and the point,” he said, noting that the chief of staff to the Commission is a Latina. “That represents some significant step in the right direction as it relates to diversity.”
But the chief of staff doesn’t cast a vote.
In 2018, activists fought a bill in the state legislature that would have given Senate President Steve Sweeney — the state’s second-most powerful elected Democrat and a close ally of South Jersey boss Norcross — more power in the commission’s appointments. Sue Altman of New Jersey Working Families Alliance was part of that opposition, and she’s dismayed that Sweeney has now been appointed to the commission himself.
“The reason redistricting is such a weapon is because the Senate president can now, in addition to all these other powers that he has over legislators, use it as a carrot or stick,” Altman said. “And so if you're redrawing a map, you can create a map that squeezes out a mischievous legislator that you'd rather not have in your caucus.”
If the Democrats and Republicans on the commission can’t agree on the new map, and it never has, the Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an ostensibly nonpartisan 11th member, who serves as the tiebreaker.
Former Attorney General John Farmer was the lawyer to the tiebreaker in 2011 and also served as the tiebreaker in congressional redistricting. He says New Jersey’s system is better than many states where the party in control of the legislature redraws the district maps. But Jersey still needs reform.
“I would prohibit sitting members of the legislature from being commissioners,” Farmer said. “They obviously have a conflict of interest and they’ll be serving, trying to protect their own seats as well as draw the map for the state, and I think that’s too much to ask.”
Farmer agrees that the lack of women and people of color on the commission is a serious problem that can’t be fixed for this time around. But the Chief Justice could pick a woman of color to be the tiebreaker, and Farmer says that could help bring some representation to the process.