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KOZMA: Redistricting amendment distracts from system's true flaws

Ballot questions like the third one on New Jersey's form this fall prove only to distract from the broader issues at hand. – Photo by Wikimedia

Next month, New Jersey voters will decide whether to approve Public Question 3, which would delay the redistricting process until after the November 2021 elections if New Jersey does not receive data from the Census by Feb. 15 next year.

Therefore, the current map of congressional and state legislative districts would remain intact until the 2023 elections. Importantly, this would be a permanent change which would apply to all future Censuses with late data.

Compared to legal weed, redistricting sounds like a boring procedural question — but it is fundamental to free and fair elections. States are required to redraw the map for congressional and state legislative elections after the Census is conducted every 10 years.

A series of Supreme Court rulings in the 1960s mandated that these districts all be of roughly equal population, so a full and accurate count of people is absolutely vital to meet this requirement.

Unfortunately, the 2020 Census faces unique challenges due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic and the President Donald J. Trump's Administration's sabotage, meaning timely and accurate data might not be available.

This amendment has drawn criticism from the left and the right. During a panel discussion on the amendment hosted by Rutgers' Eagleton Institute of Politics, Jesse Burns of the NJ League of Women Voters said that New Jersey has grown more racially diverse since the current map was drafted in 2011.

Doug Steinhardt, New Jersey Republican Party chairman, meanwhile said, "The people of New Jersey deserve legislators that reflect the political and demographic makeup of our great state, and they haven't enjoyed that in at least a decade," according to Insider NJ.

Uniquely among modern democracies, redistricting is largely a partisan process in America. Legislators draw the maps for congressional districts in 31 states and state legislative districts in 30, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. This creates a huge incentive for gerrymandering, where politicians pick their voters instead of the other way around.

In the worst case, Wisconsin, Republicans drew the maps after the 2010 Census, allowing them to win 63 of 99 state Assembly seats, 11 of 17 state Senate seats up for re-election and 5 of 8 congressional seats in the 2018 elections.

Relative to that monstrosity, New Jersey is okay. A bipartisan commission balanced between Democrats and Republicans draws district lines, with an appointee from the state Supreme Court to break any tie. But even this well-intentioned system has produced some crazy imbalances.

In 2017, Democrats won 68 percent of the seats in the general assembly with only 58 percent of the popular vote. In 2013, they won fewer votes statewide than Republicans for both chambers of the state legislature but maintained their majorities. Even as a Democrat, I consider that unfair.

This amendment distracts us from the real issue: We can not have a 100 percent fair map under the first-past-the-post (FPTP) system.

Under FPTP, an electorate is divided into numerous geographic districts. The candidate with the most votes — even if not a majority — in each district wins, and each district's winner forms the legislature. Since most districts are safe for one party, voting becomes an often meaningless ritual where most voters do not actually matter.

As Americans, we wrongly assume that it is the best system simply because it is the only system. In fact, most democracies outside the Anglosphere use some variant of proportional representation. British and Canadian elections experience the same distortions, despite the districts being drawn by independent nonpartisan commissions.

Proportional representation treats all voters equally under the law, and every vote counts equally toward the legislature's composition. There are no longer "safe" or "swing" districts, so politicians must pay attention to all voters. There are no incentives for gerrymandering, because there are either very large multi-member districts or the districts are offset by "leveling seats," which ensure the party with n percent of votes wins n percent of seats.

The Nordic nations all use leveling seats. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use a similar system combining local districts and nationwide proportional representation called mixed-member proportional representation (MMP).

The Netherlands, by contrast, treats the entire country as one district in which parties campaign. Ireland's take on proportional representation, the single transferable vote, is less party centric. These versions all have their trade-offs, but they all outperform FPTP.

A 2012 study by political scientist Arend Lijphart found that democracies using proportional representation see on average an increase of 7.5 percentage points in voter turnout, eight percentage points in the representation of women, government policies closer to the median voter and higher trust in the political process. Best of all, it renders these controversies about redestricting obsolete by rendering the district lines themselves obsolete. New Jersey could make history by having the first state legislature in the country to use MMP. That way, local communities would still have a voice in state government, but every voter would matter equally. Given rapid demographic trends, this is a better solution to the under- representation of racial minorities in government than having to redraw maps every decade. Whether we extend the current maps or not, this amendment distracts us from our electoral system's true defects.

Thomas Kozma is a Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy junior majoring in planning and public policy. His column, “With Liberty and Justice for All,” runs on alternate Thursdays.

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