The Slatest

How Progressive Activists Killed New Jersey Democrats’ Gerrymandering Scheme

Activists with the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and NJ 11th for Change protest against a gerrymandering amendment.
Activists with the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and NJ 11th for Change protest against a gerrymandering amendment. Anne Songcayauon

New Jersey Democrats’ gerrymandering proposal is dead—killed not by Republican backlash, but by near-universal opposition from grassroots progressive activists who bucked the Democratic Party to defend voting rights.

Democratic leaders in New Jersey hoped to push through the constitutional amendment with record speed. By approving it in December and January, legislators would have placed the plan on the ballot in 2019. If passed, the amendment would have given politicians substantially more control over the redistricting process. It would also compel mapmakers to prioritize political considerations, allowing them to create a partisan advantage for Democrats.

The precise intent and impact of the amendment sparked a lively debate among political scientists. Redistricting expert Michael McDonald argued that it would not necessarily give Democrats an unearned edge. Sam Wang of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project noted that it was poorly designed, as it could transform a moderate Republican wave into huge GOP gains in the legislature. McDonald and Wang asserted that the amendment reflected an intraparty squabble between Democratic legislators and Gov. Phil Murphy. Under the current rules, John Currie, the state Democratic Party chair and a progressive Murphy ally, picks Democratic members of the state’s redistricting commission. Democratic legislative leaders, who are more conservative than Murphy, feared the next map would diminish their power. Their plan would’ve let them appoint more members to the commission, helping to entrench the incumbencies of corporate-friendly machine Democrats.

Regardless of the amendment’s purpose, its consequences would not have been healthy for democracy. As the Brennan Center for Justice pointed out, the proposal would’ve obligated mapmakers to emphasize partisan outcomes, arguably allowing Democrats to manipulate district lines to their advantage. It could have diluted the voting power of communities of color, “packing” them into a few districts or “cracking” them throughout others to produce more Democratic seats. The amendment’s formula actually incentivized this unseemly strategy.

Most importantly, the New Jersey proposal did precisely what voting rights advocates almost universally oppose: It gave politicians more control over the redistricting process. Any plan that hands legislators influence over redistricting will almost certainly result in a more politicized map. That’s why the gold standard of gerrymander reform is an independent redistricting commission that maximizes competitive districts.

As Democratic legislators barreled toward a December vote, New Jersey’s progressive community rallied against the proposal. A huge coalition of grassroots activists, union leaders, voting rights advocates, and racial justice proponents objected to the amendment. More than 100 activists and academics—representing a broad range of organizations, including the New Jersey Working Families Alliance and the League of Women Voters—testified against the amendment. They held press conferences and protests to shame Democratic leaders and demand real reform. It worked: On Saturday, Democratic legislators backed away from the amendment, canceling a Monday vote and effectively killing it.

There are two lessons in this debacle. The first is that the Democratic base really does appear to value voting rights as a matter of principle, not convenience. Even when a gerrymander might’ve helped their party, progressives defended fair maps and resisted partisan manipulation of district lines. The Democratic Party cannot present itself as the party of voting rights and then jettison its support for free and equal elections when doing so might help them win more seats. Liberal voters will not stand for it.

The second, related lesson is that Democrats cannot back away from their support for citizen-led independent redistricting commissions. Fair Districts New Jersey, a project by the state’s League of Women Voters, is currently pushing for this reform, which recently passed in Michigan and Colorado. These commissions create competitive elections where Democrats can win on an even playing field; California’s current map was drawn by an independent commission, and Democrats swept the state’s elections in November.

When GOP legislatures in Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina stripped power from incoming Democratic governors, we did not see Republican activists marching at their capitols in opposition. Both parties may gerrymander, but both sides of the political spectrum are not equally to blame for the current, sorry state of voting rights. For years, the Democratic Party has promised its base that it will vigorously protect the franchise. The calamity in New Jersey demonstrates that progressives expect Democratic lawmakers to keep their word.