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Column: Public Shut Out of Redistricting

But incumbents are likely to win again thanks to a system that stacks the deck against change.

A year from now, Morris County will no longer be fully enclosed in one congressional district.

Just before Christmas, the impartial member of the panel overseeing the redrawing of congressional district lines chose the Republican map that moves the 11th District, which currently contains all of Morris (as well as some towns outside of it, such as Hopatcong), slightly north and east. That will dump about a quarter of the county’s municipalities into the 7th District. For the first time in two decades, Morris will have divided congressional representation.

Since 1995, the representative for the 11th has been Rodney P. Frelinghuysen, a member of New Jersey’s political royalty.

Next year, residents of the Chesters, Dover, Long Hill, Mine Hill, Mount Arlington, Mount Olive, Netcong, Roxbury, Washington Township and Wharton will have a new congressman, Leonard Lance, if he wants the job. But they aren’t likely to see much of a difference in terms of politics, as both men are loyal, anti-Obama Republicans.

Splitting Morris into two districts is not a terrible thing. It might even be positive. Officials in several of the municipalities that have been split into different districts say it can be beneficial having two different congressmen fighting for them in Washington.

What may hurt is New Jersey’s loss of a congressional seat. We are one of 10 states to lose representation due to population trends measured by the 2010 Census. Eight states gained.

It’s also likely that Jersey’s delegation to the nation’s capitol will be split next year, as half of the new districts are solidly Democratic, while the other half— including both the 11th and the 7th—are solidly Republican. Currently, the Democrats have the advantage in the 7-6 split.

The GOP won congressional district redrawing, which is only fair, given the Democrats won state legislative redistricting, right?

Wrong.

It shouldn’t be that simple. As in most of the states, New Jersey’s redistricting process leaves much to be desired. It's not the worst in the nation (so many are bad, like Arkansas, where the governor, secretary of state and attorney general draw the lines themselves). But New Jersey’s process is still completely political and the public practically has no say.

People do technically have input. There are hearings and people can speak. But the deck is stacked. Both commissions work in similar ways: Comprised of equal numbers of Ds and Rs, party leaders work on new maps that meet the requirement of equal representation but aim to give their sides the edge. There’s nothing any real person has to say that’s going to change these behind-closed-doors machinations.

When the committee does not agree—what a shock—the burden of breaking the tie falls to an “impartial” member.

In the case of congressional redistricting this year, that member was John Farmer Jr., current dean of Rutgers Law School in Newark and a former chief counsel and attorney general in Republican administrations. Still, the Democrats on the committee agreed to his appointment, so that’s not the issue.

The complaint is with a system that is destined to favor one party over another and incumbents, as well.

That’s not what elections are supposed to be about. Doesn’t everyone learn as a child—at least back in the days when schools taught civics—that one of the great things about democracy in America is that everyone has a chance to be elected?

The redrawing of district boundary lines for state and federal elections every decade would be the perfect time to open up opportunities for newcomers to realize that dream, but that doesn’t happen with the system New Jersey and most other states have.

California seems to have come up with the best system. It involves the random selection of “citizen” commissioners. The group must have five Democrats, five Republicans and four who are in neither major party. For a map to pass, it needs the votes of three Dems, three Reps and three others. This may not be perfect -- the non-profit investigative journalism organization Pro Publica said the Democrats were able to game this new system this year, a charge which the commission denies.

But it still has to be better than appointing a bunch of politically connected members of both parties to devise plans to appease incumbents and let one outsider choose which one is best. All that does is leave citizens stuck with the same representation of which a majority already disapprove.

Colleen O'Dea is a writer, editor, researcher, data analyst, web page designer and mapper with almost three decades in the news business. Her column appears Mondays.

Maxim Sapozhnikov January 02, 2012 at 02:11 PM
Gerrymandering isn't supposed to be fair; it's partisan by definition. Redistricting was always done by the Dems, that's how they kept Congressional delegation of NJ blue. And now, when Christie pulled the rug from under their feet, they'll squeal about "public participation".
dj January 02, 2012 at 02:32 PM
How could New Jersey have lost population, obviously they weren't counting all the illegals in New Jersy.
Maxim Sapozhnikov January 02, 2012 at 06:10 PM
I probably am wealthy enough to be 1%, and I'm not a Republican. :)
George Schaefer January 02, 2012 at 09:40 PM
dj - NJ lost a seat in Congress, not because its population declined but because our increase was less than other states. There are a fixed number (435) of congressional seats. Therefore those states which the most rapid increase will be reapportioned more. seats every 10 years. For example in 1960 NJ had 15 and Texas as 23. Today NJ has 12 and Texas 33 as more people have left high tax states like NJ for tax friendly states like Texas. The author of this article clearly doesn't understand how the US Constitution is written nor the historical context and legal process of redistricting. And the California system ends up with no better results than any other, look at what is happening in Ohio and Florida. No matter how "bad" our system and government may look to you, it is clearly superior to all others as it has generally resulted in stability and prosperity for over 200 years. It may not be perfect but it works darn well.
George Schaefer January 03, 2012 at 04:14 AM
Hey Man, I can express my views openly with my real name, not hiding behind a meaningless handle that devalues your comments and makes them meaningless.

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