In non-presidential years, it seems that New Jersey residents have all but lost interest in voting. The last New Jersey election with the state assembly at the top of the ballot set a record for low voter turnout. Before that, the previous election with the governor at the top also set a low turnout record.
To Helen Kioukis of Fair District NJ, this apathy points to a systemic problem with the way the state chooses its elected representatives. “Something is going on in New Jersey that we need to fix,” she says.
There may be many reasons for voters staying home, but it probably doesn’t help that last time state legislative districts were drawn in 2011, the decision of which map to use fell to one person, a neutral tiebreaker who would choose between maps drawn by representatives of the state’s Democratic and Republican parties. This person deliberately chose the map that would benefit incumbents the most. This effort was successful: depending on the outcome of one race that’s still up in the air, either 95 or 97 percent of incumbents defeated their challengers in the elections earlier this month.
Why bother voting if there is little hope of creating change? “If people feel like it doesn’t matter, they won’t show up,” Kioukis says.
Kioukis is part of a League of Women Voters campaign to end gerrymandering and institute a redistricting process that puts citizens, not politicians, in the driver’s seat. On Thursday, November 14, from 4 to 5 p.m. at Princeton University’s McCosh Hall, the LWV together with Fair Districts New Jersey and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project will host a town hall featuring members of the California Independent Redistricting Commission. The event is part of the commissioners’ two-day visit to New Jersey, during which they will discuss how California reformed its system of redistricting and made it more fair for everyone. For more information, visit www.fairdistrictsnj.org.
All three groups are working to end gerrymandering, which is the practice in which politicians re-draw districts in order to create unfair advantages for their allies. In an extreme scenario, a party can take over a state government permanently by drawing districts to pack as many of their opponents into one place as possible so that they would only send a handful of representatives to a governing body.
Nationally, the discussion on gerrymandering has focused on states like North Carolina, which are so badly rigged as to give one party an extremely unfair advantage. Lawsuits have taken gerrymandering cases all the way to the Supreme Court, which has declined to hear cases based on partisan gerrymandering. With no national Supreme Court ruling possible, activists have turned to state-by-state efforts to fix the problem.
New Jersey may not have the most egregiously drawn districts in the nation, but California’s experience shows that reforming the redistricting process can result in better government overall. California recently instituted a process where citizens are the ones to draw district maps. The first election after the reforms saw more candidate turnover, more new blood joining the legislature, and a state government that was more responsive to the public.
“We don’t have a map that has received a lot of court challenges, but we also don’t have a map that was drawn with transparency, and we don’t have a map that took public input, and we don’t have a process that prevents commissioners from drawing a map from their own self-interest,” Kioukis says.
New Jersey’s current statewide redistricting process was created in the 1960s and was very progressive for its time. The 12 redistricting commissioners are appointed by the leaders of the Assembly and the Senate and the state political party chairs, with Republicans and Democrats each appointing half. These 12 commissioners must agree on a tiebreaking member who will draw the districts to be contiguous, as compact as possible, and respecting the boundaries of municipalities where possible.
In practice, this gives the neutral tiebreaker enormous amounts of power. Although this system has prevented one party from completely steamrolling the other, it leaves a lot to be desired, Kioukis says. “Redistricting is a very political process where partisans and party operatives are creating a map with very specific goals that have nothing to do with what’s in the best interest of voters,” she says.
The anti-gerrymandering groups are attempting to get lawmakers to introduce a ballot question for the 2020 election to reform this process. They want it to be more transparent, open, and independent where voters feel confident they can trust both the process and the outcome. They want the process to include public hearings, a way for the public to submit maps, and a set of line-drawing rules modeled on those in California, where a ranked list of priorities must be considered. Some of those considerations are preserving various communities of interest, such as ethnic minorities, to ensure they get legislative representation. They also want to ban any consideration of partisan voting patterns. The goal is to reform the process in time for the next 10-year redistricting in 2021.
Kioukis, a former union organizer who grew up in Atlantic City and holds a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Boston University, says making these reforms could help remove the sense that voters can do nothing to remove entrenched politicians.
“In the 1960s what New Jersey did to take power out of the hands of the legislature and move to this bipartisan commission was really bold,” she says. “We think that we should be bold again.”