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Public Merits Voice in Redistricting Plan

This post originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger.

UPDATE: Commission public hearings announced: 1/12-Rutgers Law School in Newark; 1/13-Hudson County Community College in Jersey City; 1/18-Rowan University in Glassboro; and 1/20-Ocean County Administration Building in Toms River. The hearings will begin at 6 p.m.

One of the most politically important events in the state will occur early this year. Most New Jerseyans are unlikely to hear much about it, though, as it will occur behind closed doors. That is, the meeting of the decennial Legislative Apportionment Commission.

Why is this important? The legislative districts of each state are supposed to afford equal representation to all residents. To accomplish this, the boundaries of these districts are redrawn every 10 years to account for population shifts determined by the U.S. Census. These legislative maps can have significant consequences.

Just look at the outcomes of the past two redistricting processes in New Jersey: In 1991, the Republicans took advantage of both anti-Democratic sentiment and a newly drawn map to take control of both chambers of the state Legislature. They did not give up that power until 2001, when a new map was largely responsible for swinging the Assembly — and, two years later, the Senate — back under Democratic rule. How the 2011 districts are drawn will have considerable policy implications for the coming decade.

The municipal level results of this year’s Census will be released in February or March. Most states will take about a year to digest those numbers and draw their new maps. New Jersey is different. Because we hold state elections in odd-numbered years and legislative candidates must file their intention to run well before the June primary, our commission has only about a month to design a “fair” map.

New Jersey is different in another regard, as well. Most states design their maps through the normal legislative bill-making process. The party that controls the Legislature has the advantage when drawing the map. New Jersey, though, uses a bipartisan commission. The Democratic and Republican state party chairs each appoint five members to the Legislative Apportionment Commission.

Technically, these 10 commissioners can come to an agreement on the map. In reality, they won’t. So the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th member. The New Jersey Constitution establishes no particular qualifications for this member. He or she can be Democrat, Republican or independent. The person doesn’t even need to be registered to vote, as was the case in 2001. The role of this 11th member can be as an arbitrator or mediator, moving the two parties’ maps closer to some middle ground. But in the end, the 11th member usually has to side with one party or the other.

There are a number of problems with this structure. While nearly 3 million New Jerseyans are registered as a Democrat or Republican, in reality, the commissioners are directed to look out for the interests of incumbent legislators, county and local committee members, and other party activists. These folks number in the tens of thousands. However, the new legislative map will have consequences for every one of the Garden State’s 8 million-plus residents. Who represents their interests in the process?

This wouldn’t be as much of an issue if the process was open to public scrutiny. Unfortunately, it is not.

That’s why the 11th member is so important. This constitutional obligation to represent everyone in our legislative districts should be coupled with giving the public some voice in the process.

This places a huge responsibility in Chief Justice Stuart Rabner’s hands. He can change the dynamic from past commissions by appointing an 11th member who is charged to serve not just as a tie-breaker, but as an advocate for the interests of the New Jersey public. While this will not result in a wholesale change in the partisan nature of the process, it will at least go some way toward giving all state residents a greater say in how they will be governed for the next 10 years.