An Assembly panel on Thursday advanced a constitutional amendment sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Assembly Judiciary Chairman John McKeon to create a more transparent and inclusive legislative redistricting process.
Districts for the New Jersey Legislature are established by the Apportionment Commission every 10 years after the federal national census is taken in order to ensure that each district has approximately the same number of people.
“New Jersey is a diverse state with continually changing demographics and we want to make sure this uniqueness is respected and represented,” said Greenwald (Camden/Burlington). “Ultimately, these changes will create a more fair and transparent process, one that is truly representative of the people and even more inclusive.”
“This change will excise politics from the redistricting process and give the public more of a say in how their communities are represented,” said McKeon (D-Essex/Morris), who chairs the Judiciary Committee that released the bill. “Removing elected officials from the commission and requiring public hearings allows voters to weigh in on how their state will be represented for the next 10 years.”
This proposed constitutional amendment (ACR-4) would increase the membership of the legislative Apportionment Commission and impose certain requirements on the process and composition of the districts established by the commission for the New Jersey Legislature.
This amendment would increase the number of members of the commission from 10 to 13 members.
Currently, the chairs of the State Committees of the two major political parties each appoint five members to the commission. This amendment would require the four legislative leaders from both major political parties to each appoint two members. The legislative leaders are the President of the Senate, the Speaker of the General Assembly, the Minority Leader of the Senate, and the Minority Leader of the General Assembly. Each State Committee chair would also appoint two members. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of New Jersey would appoint the 13th member. Members would be appointed with due consideration to geographic, ethnic, and racial diversity. No member of the Senate or General Assembly would be allowed to be a member of the commission.
Currently, if the commission fails to complete its work, the Chief Justice appoints one additional member. This amendment would require that member to be appointed from the start of the process, and provide a two-month period for the entire process to occur after that appointment, instead of one month as required currently.
Within that two-month period, the commission would be required to hold at least three public hearings, in different parts of the State and at times and locations convenient to the public. The commission would establish a website, to be administered by the Office of Legislative Services, a nonpartisan State agency, to inform the public about the commission’s work. This website would also allow members of the public to submit plans and comments.
The commission would be required to provide at least 48 hours notice of the public meeting at which a plan is certified to establish legislative districts, including notice of the final proposed plan of legislative districts produced by each political party. The commission would be required to certify the new legislative districts at a public meeting. The public would be given an opportunity to comment.
The commission would be required to certify a plan establishing legislative districts that ensures fair representation. This means that each of the two major political parties is required to have an equal number of districts more favorable to that party, utilizing standards for fair representation originally established by Dr. Donald E. Stokes when he served as the independent member of the commission in both 1981 and 1991. Dr. Stokes described these standards in “Legislative Redistricting by the New Jersey Plan,” published in 1993 by the Fund for New Jersey. A district would be more favorable to a political party if the percentage of total votes received in all Statewide general elections by that party for the offices of United States President, United States Senator, and Governor exceeds the percentage of total votes received by that party in the average district in the plan.
The commission would be required to certify a plan with at least 25 percent competitive districts. A competitive district would be described as a district within five percentage points of the average district in the plan. For each competitive district in which a major political party’s percentage of total votes exceeds that party’s percentage of votes in the average district, there would be required to be a corresponding district in which that party’s percentage of total votes is less than the average district by approximately the same amount.
The amendments would require that all districts comply with federal law, in all circumstances, including but not limited to the requirements on population deviation and of the Voting Rights Act or any successor act, and be comprised of contiguous territory. Districts are required to meet the limitations on the division of municipalities as already set forth in Article IV, Section II, paragraph 3 of the New Jersey Constitution.
In deciding among multiple plans that meet the preceding requirements, the commission would be required to consider which plan best preserves communities of interest within each district.
As a proposed constitutional amendment, the bill must now sit on the desks of lawmakers for 20 days before being considered by the full Assembly. It must also receive a public hearing.