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Leading Academics Propose New Jersey Legislative Redistricting Reforms

Report calls for increasing the number of independent members and establishing mapmaking criteria

A working group of leading academics and lawyers who have been active in promoting redistricting reform has issued “Improving New Jersey’s Legislative Apportionment Process,” a comprehensive report on reforming the state’s decennial legislative redistricting process.  The group’s key recommendations include:

  • Retain the bipartisan commission structure, ensuring that commissioners appointed by the parties reflect the state’s diversity.
  • Increase the number of independent commissioners from one to three and appoint them at the start of the apportionment process.
  • Create apportionment guidelines that prioritize communities of interest and partisan fairness but avoid formulaic requirements that impinge on the commission’s ability to balance and reconcile competing principles.
  • Increase opportunities for public comment and extend the period for comment.
  • Facilitate informed public comment with disclosure of precinct and voting data, including digital tools to allow all citizens to offer comments in a timely manner.

The working group was formed early this year in response to legislative efforts to amend the current apportionment process, which ultimately faced opposition from good government and civil rights advocates across the political spectrum. The group’s work took on added impetus after last month’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that left solutions to partisan gerrymandering in the hands of the states.

The report was authored by:

Patrick Murray, Director, Monmouth University Polling Institute

Samuel Wang, Director of Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

Yurij Rudensky, Redistricting Counsel, Brennan Center for Justice, New York University School of Law

Brigid Callahan Harrison, Professor of Political Science and Law, Montclair State University

Ronald Chen, University Professor and Distinguished Professor of Law, Rutgers University Law School

Ben Williams, Legal Analyst, Princeton Gerrymandering Project, Princeton University

The report recommends maintaining the current bipartisan commission structure, but calls for expanding the number of independent members appointed by the Chief Justice and making those members a part of the process from the outset.  Having a panel of arbiters will help ensure that agreed-upon rules are applied consistently and should result in a more deliberative process. This would be a marked improvement over the current dynamic where each party vies to meet the preferences of a single “tie-breaker.”  The proposed reforms also require the commission to solicit public input over an expanded time period. This will require slightly shifting the state’s primary election calendar in redistricting years, similar to how it is handled in Virginia, which also holds its legislative elections in odd-numbered years.

The report also proposes criteria to guide the commission’s deliberations, emphasizing communities of interest and partisan fairness, while also respecting municipal boundaries – a touchstone in the state’s political culture.  Additionally, the proposal calls for codifying widely accepted standards of equal population and racial representation in the state constitution.

“We have proposed a bold, yet common sense approach to improving the current system. It increases public participation in the process while also addressing concerns raised by legislators who proposed changes last year. Under this plan, the legislative map’s outcome will not hinge on the priorities of a single independent member,” said Murray of Monmouth University.

“New Jersey was a leader in establishing one of the first redistricting commissions. Now that a dozen other states have adopted commissions, we can learn from their experience. If we implement those lessons, we can give all groups and parties a fair shot at representation in Trenton,” said Wang of Princeton University.

“This proposal fuses national best-practices with New Jersey values. The much needed renovation would address the known flaws of the current process while promoting fairness and establishing a system that is community driven and accountable to voters,” said Rudensky of New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice.

“Ensuring that New Jersey’s legislature is representative of its citizens begins with improving our redistricting process, so that our redistricting commission is representative of New Jersey’s diversity, and the redistricting process provides for transparency and facilitates public participation,” said Harrison of Montclair State University.

“Fair redistricting will not be achieved through indiscriminate use of formulas or algorithms, but will require a broad-based approach that includes broad and effective public input and the ability to reconcile often competing redistricting principles,” said Chen of Rutgers University, the former New Jersey Public Advocate.

“In recent decades, states have enacted bold reforms to make their redistricting processes transparent and open to all. Adopting the best practices from those systems would bring New Jersey to the forefront of the national movement for fair districts,” said Williams of Princeton University.

Click here for the full Improving New Jersey’s Legislative Apportionment Process report.

It’s All About Name Recognition, Folks!

Hypothetical general election match-ups don’t mean all that much… yet

By Patrick Murray

I was watching a news channel the other day when the resident pundit opined that polls show Joe Biden to be the most formidable Democrat against Donald Trump. “No! They do not. Stop saying that,” I shouted into the void.

There is a great deal of nuance in what these current polls really mean versus how they are breathlessly characterized in the 24-hour media environment.  The main caveat for all 2020 polling is that the campaign really hasn’t started as far as the vast majority of voters are concerned.  They simply are not paying enough attention right now to offer carefully considered opinions.  We pretty much say this every time we release a poll, but journalists and pundits who eat, sleep and breathe the election find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of a typical voter for whom this is still just background noise.

Even though interest in the upcoming election is astronomically high, it’s not clear that voters are keeping up with the details yet.  A recent Quinnipiac Poll found that 42% of voters nationwide are currently paying a lot of attention to the 2020 campaign, which includes 48% of Republicans, 45% of Democrats, and 36% of independents.  In other words, the majority of voters are really not tuned in.

To be sure, voters will talk about politics when you ask them – in a poll or in the ubiquitous Iowa diner – but their opinions at the stage of the race tend to be rather inchoate.  In fact, one candidate probably owes his spot on the debate stage this week due mainly to the way his name was introduced in a poll of Democratic voters who had previously known nothing about him.

A recent Monmouth University Poll in Nevada bears this out as well.  Likely caucusgoers make up less than one-tenth of all registered voters in the state, so it’s fair to assume they would be among the most highly engaged.  Of 24 Democratic candidates in the field, only three (Biden, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren) had nearly universal name recognition and only ten candidates were sufficiently well known to get a majority of these highly engaged voters to provide an opinion of them.

Moreover, political “moderates” in this pool of likely Democratic caucusgoers were even less likely to have opinions of the top ten candidates – to the tune of about 7 points less likely on average.  It’s no surprise that moderate voters are currently much more likely than liberals to throw their support to Biden.  It’s not just about ideology.  He’s the one candidate they actually know something about, whereas liberal voters tend to be more familiar with many of the other candidates.

You have to be especially careful when looking at polls of potential general election match-ups.  The graph below shows Trump’s support in head-to-head contests against four possible Democratic nominees according to nine recent polls.  Across each of these polls, Trump’s numbers barely budge in any of these contests because voters are confident in their knowledge of him.

Now, take a look at the same graph, but this time showing the four Democrats’ support against Trump.  The graph is ordered based on name recognition, starting on the left with Biden, then Sanders and Warren, with Pete Buttigieg at the end.  There is almost a straight diagonal line in voter support from the best-known candidate to the least-known in each poll.

Name recognition plays a significant role in whether voters are ready to say they will support a specific Democrat against Trump, but it does not impact how many voters say they will back the incumbent in any of these four scenarios.  These graphs also illustrate why you’re probably better off just using a simple “Trump reelection support” question at this stage of the race rather than any hypothetical head-to-head polls.

Voter engagement and candidate familiarity matters and will certainly change. This is important to keep in mind not only for lower-tier candidates who could eventually emerge as top contenders, but also for support of the supposed front-runner as well.  Even though Biden already has universal name recognition, it does not mean that opinions of him are set in stone.  The campaign will matter. The “Joe Biden” whom voters know today – or think they know today – will not be the same candidate they are evaluating in the throes of a competitive nomination battle five or six months from now.

The bottom line is that most Democratic voters will not really tune into this race until the fall. This week’s debates will be a step toward introducing them to a field of candidates they barely know.  Of course, it goes without saying that pundits will seek to immediately declare whose campaign is sunk and who is inexorably on the rise because of their debate performances. But as far as most voters are concerned, this will be a first look – and for many just a fleeting glance – at a race that still has many laps to go.

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Monmouth University Poll – 2018 Midterm Recap

[Note:  All Monmouth poll reports can be found at www.monmouth.edu/polling .]

The Monmouth University Poll made a commitment in the 2018 midterms to focus on a range of Congressional races that would help the public understand what factors were at play in this election. Monmouth’s polls in the final weeks of the campaign captured the trajectory of the race for control of the U.S. House.  Specifically, Monmouth’s likely voter model results for four polls conducted in late October were very close to the final margins in those contests.

“We really wanted to focus on the important issues at play while conveying a reasonable range of potential outcomes. Our primary goal was not to predict results, but rather to tell an accurate story of the factors driving this election and the direction it could potentially go,” said Patrick Murray, director of the independent Monmouth University Polling Institute.

Monmouth’s polling in 13 competitive House races, plus one Senate race, depicted the unusually high levels of interest among voters this year. This includes an early Democratic enthusiasm advantage in the summer and Republicans closing that gap in the fall.  In addition to the individual poll reports in these districts, Monmouth released additional analysis that gave an overview of the state of the race, first after Labor Day and again right before Election Day. These reports went beyond the “horse race” to examine the issues and dynamics at play in different regions of the country and among key voting blocs.

A notable innovation in the way Monmouth reported its findings in 2018 was showing the results for more than one potential turnout scenario. This approach pointed to a range of realistic outcomes and also conveyed the inherent uncertainty involved in election polling. These models were based on tests conducted in two special elections held earlier in the year, which accurately pointed to the dynamics in those races.  Monmouth’s special election polling showed the Democrats gaining in both races over the final weeks of those campaigns, pulling ahead in the PA18 race in March, but falling short in OH12 in August.

Image details Monmouth University's Poll Performance for the 2018 Midterm Elections