TRENTON - Independent experts and Republicans on Thursday assailed a proposed constitutional amendment that they said would make New Jersey's legislative elections less competitive and help cement a Democratic majority for years to come.

Democrats are fast-tracking the amendment, which would require voter approval, through the Legislature for a likely vote next week, in hope of getting the question on November's ballot.

Democrats control the Senate, 24-16, and, based on November's elections, will expand their majority next week in the Assembly to 52-28.

"This is a bald-faced attempt to pull the wool over voters' eyes, making them complicit in a process that will only serve to increase their own cynicism about politics," Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told a Senate panel in rare public remarks opposing specific legislation.

The proposal would change the process by which the state's 40 legislative districts are drawn every 10 years. Currently, a 10-member Apportionment Commission, composed evenly of members of each party, convenes each decade to redraw districts to account for changes in the census.

The next legislative map will be drawn in 2021. A separate process affects congressional redistricting.

The plan is most controversial because it would enshrine in the constitution that "at least" 10 districts - or 25 percent - be "competitive" relative to the "average" district.

It defines a competitive district as one that "is more favorable to either major political party by no more than 5 percentage points of the average district in the plan."

Under the amendment, the commission would calculate the "average" district by using the results of statewide elections - for governor, president, and U.S. senator - for each of the previous 10 elections.

"This linkage is truly bizarre," Murray said. "As we know, voters use a different set of criteria when evaluating whom to support in elections for federal offices vs. state offices and for executive positions vs. legislative ones."

Murray added, "I have been crunching numbers in New Jersey for long enough to know when something smells fishy."

State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), a bill sponsor, said the amendment would ensure fairness and "equal representation amongst voters."

"Every election should be considered during the redistricting process," he said in an interview. "Why wouldn't it? Why would they not want the results of this November's elections to be considered in the redistricting process?"

A number of states have moved to account for competitiveness in legislative redistricting in recent years, but New Jersey would be the only one to set a specific target for the number of competitive districts, said Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Underhill said she was not aware of any state that by law used results from statewide elections to draw legislative districts, but added that states could be using such criteria behind closed doors. Some, such as Vermont and South Carolina, allow for protection of incumbents to be included as a factor in redistricting.

Florida's constitution prohibits apportionment plans that are intended to favor or disfavor a political party or incumbent.

The process outlined in New Jersey's proposed amendment to create competitive districts would actually entrench "a permanent Democratic majority by using a tortured definition of the word competitive," Murray said.

Democrats currently enjoy an average eight-point advantage statewide. Murray said the amendment would allow the commission to manipulate the map to boost Democrats' average advantage to as high as 17 percentage points.

Thus, a district in which Democrats held a 12 percentage point advantage, based on statewide election results, would be considered competitive.

This outcome "defies any commonsense meaning of the term competitive," Murray said.

Another expert, Ingrid Reed, former head of the New Jersey Project at Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, also spoke in opposition to the amendment.

"To provide this kind of instruction to the commission undermines, I think, what it was intended to do and its value of being able to have both objective and subjective deliberations," she told the Senate State Government, Wagering, Tourism and Historic Preservation Committee.

Both Murray and Reed supported other provisions of the amendment that would change the composition of the Apportionment Commission.

Currently, each party chair appoints five members. In the event of an impasse, as occurred in 2011, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints a tiebreaker.

Under the amendment, each party chair would appoint three members, and the four leaders of the Legislature - the Senate president, Assembly speaker, and minority leaders of the two houses - would each appoint one. The public member would be appointed by the chief justice at the outset of the reapportionment process. The amendment would bar state lawmakers from serving on the commission.

The experts also said it is wise to require the commission to hold public hearings. However, they said the amendment is undermined by the other provisions.

Republicans noted that some liberal editorial boards of the state's biggest newspapers have slammed the proposed amendment. Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi (R., Bergen) called that an "eye-opening moment."

Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R., Bergen) said the amendment would lead New Jersey "down the path of a banana republic."

The interest groups backing the amendment should say they'll "exhume King George" III and make him the 11th member of the commission, Cardinale said.

"What this blatantly says is, 75 percent of the people - their votes don't count," he said.

Sen. Jim Whelan, the committee's chairman and the only Democrat who sat on the panel Thursday, countered that there have only been a handful of competitive districts in recent elections. He argued that the amendment would improve the current system.

To get the question on the ballot, the Legislature would need to pass the amendment with a simple majority by the end of the current session next week and again next session, or with one three-fifths vote.

Members of the public who offered testimony Thursday spoke in dark terms. The amendment is "fascist," said conservative activist Greg Quinlan, who invoked Hitler.

"Why the rush?" asked John Tomicki, executive director of the League of American Families. He added, "You're building cynicism."

aseidman@phillynews.com

856-779-3846 @AndrewSeidman