New Jersey lawmakers are pursuing possible changes to the way the state redraws its legislative districts each decade, and Assemblyman Troy Singleton has introduced his own proposal to inject a nonpartisan perspective into the process.
Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, introduced his legislation Monday, saying the existing system was contributing to voter frustration and government polarization. He said the law would create a more independent and transparent redistricting process that is also "more inclusive of public input."
"Too often, the redistricting process is used not to ensure electoral fairness, but rather to shape boundaries that favor one political candidate," Singleton said this week. "This gerrymandering compromises democracy and helps to create the polarization we see in government today."
His proposal varies significantly from another Democratic redistricting bill written by Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-22nd of Linden, that stalled last year amid intense criticism from Republican lawmakers, who claimed it would ensure Democratic control of the Legislature for decades to come.
Both proposals would require voter approval for a constitutional amendment that would make changes to the makeup and methods of the state's Apportionment Commission, which is formed every 10 years after the U.S. census in order to redraw the boundaries of the state's 40 legislative districts to reflect population shifts.
The process is generally ignored by most New Jersey residents, but the political stakes have proved to be extremely high.
Through the last three decades, the party that won the redistricting fight won or maintained control of the Legislature: the Republicans in the 1990s, and the Democrats in the 2000s and the first half of this decade.
Under the current system, the commission is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans appointed by the chairs of the Republican and Democratic state committees, plus an 11th tiebreaking member selected by the chief justice of the state Supreme Court.
Sitting legislators often serve on the commission, and both sides typically propose their own maps that redraw the boundaries in ways that reflect population shifts, but also with an eye toward giving their party a competitive advantage in legislative elections over the next 10 years.
Since the commissioners rarely agree on a map, an 11th member is called upon to break the deadlock and choose the final map.
During the last redistricting round in 2011, late Rutgers political science professor Alan Rosenthal was selected as the tiebreaking member, and he cast the decisive ballot in favor of a map drawn by the Democrats, paving the way for the party to maintain and expand its majority in the Senate and Assembly.
Singleton's proposal calls for several changes in the makeup and process of the commission, including a ban on sitting legislators or their aides from serving.
Under his bill, the process would begin with the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Services drafting a new map or maps reflecting the population changes without political considerations. Public hearings would then be held, and the office would be authorized to make changes to its maps based on public input.
The two major political parties would then be authorized to submit their own maps, which would also be reviewed at public hearings.
The 11th commissioner would be authorized to recommend changes to either the OLS maps or the maps drafted by the Republicans and Democrats. However, Singleton's bill specifies that commissioners may not be a member of either party or hold an appointed position in state government.
His bill also specifies that the maps must comply with federal requirements and that boundaries should be drawn without consideration to the impact on incumbent lawmakers.
Singleton said he looked at several models and approaches used by other states before drafting his bill, which he described as a "hybrid" approach that incorporates several states' methods and practices.
Singleton is also an Assembly sponsor of the Scutari proposal, which would make several changes to the commission makeup and processes, including a controversial provision requiring the final selected map to include a minimum of 10 "competitive districts," which would be measured based on the results of the most recent elections for president, U.S. Senate and governor.
Those elections have largely been dominated by Democrats during the last three decades, and the proposal was roundly criticized by Republicans, who claimed it was intended to cement Democratic control. Several political science professors and grass-roots groups were also critical of the measure, and Democratic leaders opted to shelve it at the end of the last legislative session rather than post it for votes by the full Senate and Assembly.
Scutari reintroduced the measure last month, reigniting some of the debate.
Singleton, who is chairman of the Assembly State and Local Government Committee, said that his bill offers a different approach to the issue than Scutari's, but that both measures warrant discussion and debate.
"If we have districts that are configured in a way that does not take into consideration divergent viewpoints, we (will) have the polarization and gridlock we see in Washington, because politicians play to their political base rather than what is in the best interest of everyone they represent," he said. "I know this is a sea change in philosophy, but I think it's a debate and discussion worth having."