Redistricting commission begins business with show of bipartisanship

Bylaws adopted Friday require it hold 10 public hearings

By: - October 18, 2021 6:55 am

Under the current map, Democrats hold 25 of the 40 seats in the Senate and 52 of the Assembly’s 80 seats.

The New Jersey Apportionment Commission unanimously adopted bylaws and designated the Office of Legislative Services as its secretary Friday in what is expected to be a rare show of bipartisanship as it sets out to redraw legislative district lines.

The 11-member panel — composed of five Democrats, five Republicans, and retired state Appellate Court Judge Philip Carchman, whom New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed as tiebreaker last week — began the meeting with promises of a transparency and inclusiveness from the body’s partisan leaders.

“This is another step in our democracy, which is going to transparent, which is going to be engaging of all the stakeholders when it’s time for public testimony to engage their input,” said LeRoy Jones, chair of the state Democratic Party. “It’s going to be a process in which there is going to be a sincere spirit of cooperation of all the members of this commission.”

Redistricting fights in New Jersey typically fall to the body’s court-appointed 11th member, as its Democratic and Republican members are rarely able to agree on a final map. Leaders on Friday stressed they would seek to avoid the infighting that has so often colored New Jersey’s reapportionment.

“Ideology, politics, geography — all of that aside — our goal as we have all discussed, is to end this process with a fair and constitutional map that we can all be proud of, and most importantly, that the residents of the state can be proud of,” said Al Barlas, the Essex County GOP chairman.

Under the current map, Democrats hold 25 of the 40 seats in the Senate and 52 of the Assembly’s 80 seats. Those figures are roughly in line with their share of voters registered with a major party, but few of the state’s districts host competitive races.

This year, only two districts, the 2nd and 8th, are expected to hold highly competitive races, with less competitive, but still contested, elections in the 11th and 16th districts.

But more than just party registration and competitiveness is taken into account when redrawing district lines. The commission will also have to consider communities of interest — Latino, Hispanic, and Asian communities are underrepresented in the Legislature — on top of varied legal and constitutional standards.

Friday’s meeting also provided a clue about Carchman’s opinion of his role on the panel: He stressed his role is that of a voting member, not a judge.

“I view my responsibility as attempting to bring the Republican and Democratic commission members together in an attempt to resolve the differences between them,” said Carchman, who spent 40 years on the bench. “My objective is to find a resolution that represents fairness to both parties and the public and one that meets the standards imposed by the constitution and the law.”

He said more than once his aim is to ensure a map that would serve the interests of the parties, their electorates, and the broader New Jersey citizenry, but he warned he is ready to cast a tiebreaking vote if the need arises.

“I started by saying, after all is said and done, I may be required to make a difficult hard call and cast a difficult vote,” he said. “I have done so throughout my career, and I am prepared to do so here.”

Still, he said he hopes that won’t be necessary.

The bylaws the commission approved Friday require it to hold 10 public hearings, though the body is still in the process of scheduling those hearings.

Former Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, who was appointed as tiebreaker of the New Jersey Congressional Redistricting Commission, earlier this month said his panel would also hold 10 public hearings. That body is required to hold only three.

Under normal circumstances, this year’s elections would be held using a newly drawn map, but delays to the census caused by the pandemic activated a constitutional amendment voters approved last year requiring the adoption of a new map not be used this year if the state did not receive census data by Feb. 15, 2021. That amendment will be in effect for future reapportionments unless overturned, and New Jersey maps may see their lifespan vacillate between eight and 12 years in the future, instead of the customary 10.


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Nikita Biryukov
Nikita Biryukov

Nikita Biryukov most recently covered state government and politics for the New Jersey Globe. His tenure there included revelatory stories on marijuana legalization, voting reform and Rep. Jeff Van Drew's decamp to the Republican Party. Earlier, he worked as a freelancer for The Home News Tribune and The Press of Atlantic City.