Buzzed on power like kids on sugar, New Jersey Democrats, who already run the government, want more. They want to control who gets into the Senate and Assembly by taking power from a relatively balanced redistricting commission and putting it under the Legislature's control.
Gov. Murphy, a Democrat, is trying to hold back his fellow partisans in the Legislature, but there's not much he can do. He can't veto the plan because legislative leaders are pushing it through as a constitutional question, which goes directly to voters. Murphy doesn't even have a say on the wording of the question. And this is happening fast. The legislature will have a bill authorizing the ballot question ready for a final vote in about two weeks.
Basically, the constitutional amendment would shift control of redistricting from the governor, the political parties, and a court-appointed tiebreaker to a commission dominated by legislators and other politicians. Under the current system, Democratic and Republican Party chairs each pick five members. The governor has more power because he controls his party chair, but it's balanced by the other party. Still, the current system is considered somewhat fair because the Supreme Court appoints an 11th member who historically has enforced high standards.
Fundamentally, redistricting shouldn't even be about which political faction has the most power. Letting politicians control the process is like letting children lock the adults out of a candy store. The voters should have the ultimate voice in picking who represents them – not the other way around.
New Jersey ought to seize this moment to be truly progressive and create an independent citizens commission composed of voters. (And Pennsylvania, whose congressional redistricting disaster finally got resolved by the courts, should follow suit.) Other states, including California, Washington, and Idaho, have independent commissions. In November, voters in Michigan, Colorado, Utah, and Missouri voted for citizen commissions. Clearly, voters don't like politicians drawing their own districts.
New Jersey's commission should not include politicians or their surrogates. Members should reflect the state's diverse population. It should hire its own experts, and make all of its research public, and all of its meetings open.
However, before New Jersey can even consider a fair redistricting process, this stinker of a bill has to die. It seeks to hoodwink voters into giving up their rights to choose their own representatives with a ballot question that's so misleading, one source quipped, it's like asking voters if they like "puppies and rainbows." It says: "Do you approve changing the Constitution to change the membership of the Apportionment Commission, require public hearings, and set standards for the way it creates legislative districts?"
New Jersey voters should tell the politicians that sure, they like puppies and rainbows, but they want to control who represents them in the Statehouse.
The politicians should put the candy down, clear their heads, and think about how to make New Jersey's independent citizens commission a national model and not just an embarrassing display of hackery.