About that New Jersey Plan…
An argument against "bothersiderism" in this case and, yet again, noting the problem with single seat districts.
As Doug Mataconis noted earlier this week, there is a move in New Jersey to amend the state constitution in regards to districting. My initial reaction to what I think I know about the plan is negative, but not necessarily for the reasons that I am seeing from various critics, whether it is Doug’s post or the NYT: Democrats in New Jersey Have a Firm Grip on Power. They Want Even More.
Democratic lawmakers in New Jersey are carrying out a power grab in an unusually public fashion: They are seeking to make Republicans a permanent minority by essentially writing gerrymandering into the State Constitution.
Except that this is an inaccurate, or at least an incomplete description (and “power grab” strike me as inflammatory and incorrect). As a point of clarity, the changes would aid the majority party, not the Democrats specifically (although they are the dominant party in NJ, to be sure). That would mean that if the state had a partisan realignment, the proposed reforms would aid the new majority party. This is not, as we have seen elsewhere, a reform that empowers the minority party and then makes it difficult for the majority to undo the change.
What the proposal does, as I understand it at the moment, is change the amount of influence that the legislature has over the redistricting process (which, in general, I tend to oppose):
Currently, the Republican and Democratic state party chairs each nominate five people to the redistricting board, and the state Supreme Court selects someone to serve as the tiebreaker. Mr. Murphy is closely allied with the chairman of the Democratic state party, John Currie, giving the governor sway over some of the commission’s members.
The redistricting plan would increase the size of the commission by two members, to 13, and state party chairs would only be allowed two nominees each. The Senate president, Senate minority leader, Assembly speaker and Assembly minority leader would each get to nominate two members, at least one of which must be a state legislator.
And, more importantly,
It overhauls the makeup of a redistricting committee to give more power to legislative leaders. It also establishes a “fairness test” requiring district maps to reflect how major political parties perform in statewide elections for governor, senator and president.
In other words, it would create a situation that would attempt to guarantee that the party that won the statewide popular vote (as measured by vote share in executive elections) would have districts drawn in way that would be reflective of that majority sentiment. As a general principal, I do not object to the goal here, which would be for the legislature to reflect the state’s general partisan preferences rather than allowing, as in Wisconsin, for the party with a minority vote share to control the majority of the legislature (although I would prefer a measure linked to the legislative vote directly).
I would note this is only “enshrining gerrymandering” in the sense that any process of district-drawing is gerrymandering to one degree or another unless it is random, especially any system that empowers partisan politicians to influence the drawing of lines. I cannot stress enough that practically any system of single district drawing is the enshrinement of gerrymandering. This is, to a large degree, why SCOTUS has a hard time ruling on an neutral process to draw lines. Every system of line drawing is biased in some fashion–which is part of the problem with single seat districts.
More importantly, this is not an example of “both sides do it” and it is lazy journalism (or, at least, significant misunderstanding) for the NYT and others to suggest it is.
- In Wisconsin, as with North Carolina a couple of years ago, the party losing executive power used a lame duck session to take power away from the in-coming, opposite party executive.
- In WI the party initiating the change has already used its power to enhance its representation in the state legislature relative to its vote share. Worse, that party will maintain a large legislative majority despite losing the statewide majority vote in the 2018 elections.
In contradistinction, the New Jersey Democratic party (the majority party) is seeking to have legislative electoral outcomes reflect the majority sentiment of the state’s voters. While their chosen method may not be my preference, that is a substantial difference from what happened in Wisconsin. Moreover, this is not a lame duck action on the way out the door, the General Assembly term is from 2018-2020. There will be no change to the state Senate, either (next Senate election is set for 2021).
They are acting now because, as the NYT notes,
Democratic leaders are digging into the state’s laws and using a provision allowing an amendment that passes the state legislature with a simple majority in two consecutive calendar years to be placed on the ballot.
So, procedurally they need to vote before the end of the year and then they can vote again next year (but it will be the same legislators). BTW, I object to the Times making it sound like this is untoward. Either the provision is in the state’s constitution, or it isn’t. That the provision is not used frequently (and I am not sure if that is even true, but is implied) does not constitute “digging” and the author of the piece appears to not have just looked at the state’s constitution, as the provision in question is not in the “state’s laws” (which would make no sense) but it, rather, in Article IX of the NJ constitution:
1. Any specific amendment or amendments to this Constitution may be proposed in the Senate or General Assembly. At least twenty calendar days prior to the first vote thereon in the house in which such amendment or amendments are first introduced, the same shall be printed and placed on the desks of the members of each house. Thereafter and prior to such vote a public hearing shall be held thereon. If the proposed amendment or amendments or any of them shall be agreed to by three-fifths of all the members of each of the respective houses, the same shall be submitted to the people. If the same or any of them shall be agreed to by less than three-fifths but nevertheless by a majority of all the members of each of the respective houses, such proposed amendment or amendments shall be referred to the Legislature in the next legislative year; and if in that year the same or any of them shall be agreed to by a majority of all the members of each of the respective houses, then such amendment or amendments shall be submitted to the people.
So, regardless of whatever else one wants to say about this proposal, it is not the same as what we just saw in Wisconsin.
Now, politically this looks bad for the Democrats nationally because it fosters bothsiderism, but not because the actions are actually equivalent. And, of course, there are a host of other, better ways to try and guarantee legislatures are representative of their states, but that is the topic of many past (for example) and future posts.
I will look further into this plan, but based on what I have seen, most reporting and commentary surrounding it are off the mark in terms of what is being proposed and especially how it compares to Wisconsin.