The national conversation over gerrymandering usually focuses on Republicans, especially in states like Wisconsin and North Carolina, where the state Republican Parties used a fortuitously timed 2010 wave to entrench their power in what are actually very competitive states.
Obviously, this is not because Democratic politicians are so virtuous that they are immune from the desire to protect their own seats. Instead, it’s a reflection of Republican dominance at the state level.
However, Democrats have shown that where they have power, they are more than happy to use shady tactics to preserve it. A prime example is New Jersey, where incumbent Democrats recently attempted to change state law governing re-districting decisions in a way that would greatly advantage their party moving forward.
But proponents of the change were forced to back down after outraged responses not just from New Jersey Republicans but also from powerful Democrats, including the state’s governor and outside progressive groups working to end gerrymandering across the country.
The Political Situation in New Jersey
New Jersey is one of the states where Democrats control a so-called “trifecta” control of both houses of the state legislature and the governor’s mansion. Democrats hold strong majorities in the state Senate and Assembly (the lower house). And Democrat Phil Murphy easily won election as the state’s governor in 2017, helped by the profound unpopularity of then-sitting governor Republican Chris Christie.
In addition, Democrats have won an unprecedented level of control over the state’s Congressional delegation. Democrats flipped four GOP-held Congressional seats in the 2018 midterms, giving them 11 of the state’s 12 seats.
As a result, when Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald and Senate President Stephen Sweeney put forward a plan to change the nature of the state’s non-partisan re-districting committee, the only politicians with the power to oppose them were Democrats.
The Controversial Plan
New Jersey was one of the first states in the country to empower a bi-partisan commission to re-draw legislative districts. Currently, an 11-member commission is composed of five Democrats, five Republicans and one independent. Essentially, the Democratic and Republican delegations submit their preferred maps and the independent member chooses between them. The members of the commission are chosen by the state parties.
Greenwald and Sweeney proposed a constitutional amendment – which, if passed, would have needed approval from the state’s voters – that would have increased the size of the commission. The chairs of the state parties would appoint only two members – legislative leaders would appoint the remainder.
In addition, the amendment called for a “fairness test” which would have required the commission draw districts that reflected the state’s overall political leanings. And since Democrats dominate in New Jersey, that provision would have systematically advantaged Democrats (the plan did not affect Congressional districts, which are drawn differently). Analysis indicated that, if passed, the amendment could have allowed Democrats to leverage 57% support into control of 70% of the state’s legislative seats.
A Furious Reaction
But while Democrats and Republicans might have a similar desire to protect their own power, there is an important difference between the two parties on these issues. There’s essentially no meaningful opposition to GOP power grabs within the party or even the broader conservative movement. Very few Republicans have spoken out against Republican efforts to gerrymander their voting districts, suppress the vote or hamstring victorious Democrats.
The same was not true of the left. Progressive writers at Slate, The Washington Post and other publications rushed to condemn the New Jersey plan, many calling it a “power grab.” Left-leaning journalists expressed concern about Democrats unilaterally disarming by disavowing gerrymandering while Republicans eagerly engage in the practice, but made clear it was wrong for any political party to subvert the will of voters in such a way.
Even more importantly, powerful figures in the Democratic Party opposed the move. Governor Murphy made clear he was against the proposal, though whether his opposition was about principle or the loss of power associated with more appointments going to the legislature and not the state party (which Murphy runs) is a fair question. And former attorney general Eric Holder, who is running a nationwide political and legal effort to fight gerrymandering and voter suppression, came out against the amendment.
The response forced Greenwald and Sweeney to withdraw the amendment, which faced a strict timetable if it was going to be in place for the 2021 elections (New Jersey holds its state-level elections in odd-numbered years).
Still, there’s a broader lesson to the Garden State story. Voters can’t rely on the good will or virtue of politicians to prevent gerrymandering. Even politicians with mostly laudable ideologies are prone to act in their own self-interest when it comes to protecting their electoral chances. Keeping districts fair and competitive requires vigilance and pro-active steps from both voters and the courts.