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New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Considerations

Cross-posted at PolitickerNJ

Another redistricting process is upon us. Earlier this year, a state commission approved a new map for New Jersey’s legislature that emphasized incumbent protection. This map ensures that no more than one or two seats in either chamber will change parties this November and all but guarantees that Democrats will control the legislature throughout the decade.

Now the state’s Congressional districts are on the table. The Congressional redistricting commission – comprised of six Democrats, six Republicans and an independent chair chosen by the other 12 members – holds the first of at least three public hearings today.

The stakes for New Jersey are different for this current process. The legislative commission controlled the fate of every seat, and thus the overall partisan makeup – and competitiveness – of the legislature. The Congressional commission has responsibility for only 12 seats in the entire House of Representatives.

Those who followed my commentary on the legislative process know that I advocated for a greater number of competitive districts in that map – enough to make the majority party earn their leadership positions in each election cycle, but not too many as to invite volatility. A certain degree of competitiveness in a legislative map is good for the state as a whole. It makes the legislature more accountable to its citizens.

If you were expecting me to argue the same for the Congressional redistricting process, though, you would be wrong. The influence of any state’s delegation is based largely on their influence with the upper echelons of Congressional leadership. Absolute seniority in itself is not important, but some degree of longevity is necessary for members of our delegation to establish those important relationships.

Since few other states use competitiveness to guide their redistricting process, New Jersey would be put at a disadvantage if it did. Even if it made a concerted effort, our commission could probably only create 3 to 5 truly competitive districts – out of 435 nationwide. While that might boost voter turnout in those districts, it would do little to increase the influence of New Jersey as a whole. Influence that we sorely need, considering how little we get back in federal spending for every tax dollar we send to Washington.

To be clear, I am no advocate of incumbent protection for its own sake. Incumbents must earn, and re-earn, the trust of a compact, cohesive, contiguous and identifiable community of interest. It is on this score that our current Congressional map fails miserably. I urge the commission to direct its efforts to redressing this problem.

New Jersey’s Congressional map is one of the most gerrymandered in the country according to independent analysis. This will come as no surprise to anyone who followed the 2001 redistricting process, when both Democrats and Republicans colluded to protect every member of New Jersey’s delegation.

That is unlikely to happen this year simply because all incumbents can’t be protected. Due to our state’s slow population growth relative to the rest of the country, our number of House members will be cut from 13 to 12 in this process. While this may be bad news for the odd man out, it offers the perfect opportunity to re-assess whether New Jersey’s Congressional districts are providing adequate representation for the state’s varied communities.

The New Jersey Constitution offers no guidance on the Congressional mapmaking process. After meeting federal requirements – such as population equality, contiguity and adherence to relevant sections of the Voting Rights Act – the commission, and the chair in particular, is free to establish whatever standards it chooses.

I urge the commission to focus on and develop working definitions for two standards: compactness and communities of interest. Using these standards as guiding principles will help remedy some of the ills of the current map.

Compactness goes to the heart of what is wrong with the current map. It is also one of the easiest to remedy since it is quantifiable. There are, of course, numerous ways to calculate district compactness, but all of them rely on some ratio of the district’s perimeter to its total land area.  Basically, these calculations look at either dispersion – how long and narrow a district is – or indentation – how many times the district boundaries zig and zag.

Each measure has pros and cons, but taken together they give us a general sense of how ideally compact a district is. An independent analysis by Azavea, a GIS software company based in Philadelphia, utilized four of the better-known measurement tools to assess the compactness of U.S. Congressional districts.

Their analysis found that New Jersey’s congressional map as a whole is the 4th or 5th least compact in the country according to 3 of these 4 measures. It ranked 14th worst on the remaining measure. The worst offender in the state is the current 6th district which snakes its way from Belmar on the coast, working its way inland to end at Plainfield. It ranks among the 10 least compact districts in the country on 3 of 4 compactness measures. New Jersey’s 13th and 12th districts are not much better.

The reason why compactness is so important is that a lack of it can serve to divide and dilute the representation of communities of interest. What is a community of interest? It is not self-evident. The commission needs to develop a working definition that is practical and can be justified to the public when the final map is revealed.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, 24 states have some reference to community of interest in their redistricting laws or guidelines, including six constitutional provisions and eight by statute. Only about half of these, though, make any attempt to describe what characteristics should be considered in a community of interest.

California’s new redistricting process, approved by voters last year, offers one of the more extensive descriptions of community of interest. In addition to preserving city and county boundaries to the extent possible, the California commission is directed to minimize the division of any:

“contiguous population which shares common social and economic interests… Examples of such shared interests are those common to an urban area, a rural area, an industrial area, or an agricultural area, and those common to areas in which the people share similar living standards, use the same transportation facilities, have similar work opportunities, or have access to the same media of communication relevant to the election process.”

By the way, California’s law explicitly excludes partisan voting patterns and incumbency as community of interest considerations.

These guidelines are too broad to be practical, but the New Jersey Commission can develop its own priorities. For example, “commonality of communications,” as the Alabama guidelines put it, should be an important consideration.

While it’s unclear how many people will be reading newspapers by the end of this decade, current newspaper circulation areas offer one possible guideline for defining communities of interest. Keeping districts squarely within either the Philadelphia or New York media markets is another consideration. Districts that straddle both, such as the current 3rd, dramatically drive up the cost of political campaigns.

Zip codes are another important guide for what defines common communications in a community of interest. For example, Somerset County’s Franklin Township lies in both the 6th and 12th districts. On the face of it, such a split would not be egregious, since the northeastern part of the town is closer to New Brunswick, while the remainder is geared south and west into Somerset County. The problem is that the current dividing line follows no rhyme or reason vis-à-vis those communities.

I know this all too well because I live there. For most of the past decade, I lived in Congressman Frank Pallone’s 6th district, which wraps into part of northeastern Franklin. During that time, I received plenty of franked mail from Congressman Rush Holt in the 12th but none from my own representative, since the mail is sorted by zip code. Preventing that type of division should be a no-brainer.

Last year, I moved less than a mile up the road. I am still represented by the same state legislators and the same mayor, and even the same municipal ward councilman. But I suddenly find myself in a different Congressional district! Eli Manning could stand in my front yard and toss a bomb to my neighbor that would land in an entirely different Congressional district.

In fact, New Jersey’s 12th district is most egregious in this regard. It cuts into at least eight different municipalities, sometimes multiple times. The commission should place a limit on how many partial towns can be drawn into any single district.

There are many other considerations that can be used to define and prioritize communities of interest. The commission should use these hearings to obtain adequate public input on those priorities and develop a set of working definitions – to be shared with the public – that will guide the preservation of communities of interest during this process.

In any event, this commission should not fall back on Potter Stewart-like explanations of compactness and communities of interest, as every other commission has in the past. “I know it when I see it” is neither an acceptable rationale nor a useful guideline.

Guidelines for compactness and communities of interest should be just that: guidelines. These metrics do not have to hamstring the commission, but they should be sufficiently quantifiable in order to keep the new districts within acceptable – and publicly justifiable – parameters.

Any explicit guidelines are better than none at all.