Democratic activists just killed a dangerous gerrymandering scheme - from their own party
Republicans are executing shameless power grabs in Wisconsin and Michigan, passing laws stripping newly-elected Democrats and liberal activists of power on their way out the door and transferring them to the GOP legislatures. But some in the political pundit class, like NBC's Chuck Todd, are pushing a narrative that rewriting the law to lock the other party out of electoral power is a common tactic that both parties use.
In fact it isn't. And this weekend, America saw the ultimate test of this false equivalence in New Jersey. Democratic activists in the state and around the country revolted against a plan that would have essentially been a Democratic version of the Wisconsin and Michigan power grabs — and forced lawmakers to abandon their attack on fair elections.
Democrats in the New Jersey legislature were moving forward with a plan that would have effectively written Democratic gerrymandering into the state constitution forever. Under this plan, half of legislative districts would be drawn to lean more Democratic, half to lean more Republican, and 25 percent of the total would be "competitive." That sounds fair on paper, but the plan actually defined "competitive" as any district that comes within 5 points of the statewide vote for president, Senate, and governor — which is 7 points more Democratic than the national average. So the legislature could theoretically have called a district where Democrats win by 56 percent "Republican leaning" and a district where Democrats win by 62 percent "competitive".
The Princeton Gerrymandering Project estimates that with these criteria, Democrats could have drawn a map where they can win 70 percent of seats in the legislature with just 57 percent of the popular vote, which would be nearly as bad as the GOP gerrymander in Wisconsin.
As if that weren't enough, the New Jersey legislature also planned to gut the state redistricting commission. The current commission consists of five members each appointed by the Democratic and Republican state party chairs, and an eleventh, nonpartisan appointee by the Supreme Court of New Jersey. This plan would have added two extra members, required the legislature to pick eight, and required that at least four be sitting lawmakers, giving incumbents more control over their district lines.
And to top it all off, Democratic lawmakers were planning to circumvent the regular constitutional amendment process — rather than take a 3/5ths vote in each chamber, which Republicans could block, they were going to use a procedural trick to hold two separate votes on it, then place it on the 2019 ballot for voters to approve.
As it turned out, the fiercest voices in opposition to this scheme came from Democrats.
Gov. Phil Murphy vowed to fight the plan "right through to the ballot box." Former Attorney General Eric Holder, who heads up the National Democratic Redistricting Committee to fight Republican gerrymanders, was similarly outraged, saying the plan "fails to live up" to the goal of putting "the interests of the people ahead of politicians." Also opposed were the ACLU of New Jersey, the Brennan Center for Justice, the League of Women Voters, and a coalition of 130 groups led by South Jersey Progressive Women for Change. Once New Jersey Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin realized their own party was turning on them, they reversed course and announced they were canceling scheduled votes on their plan.
Ultimately, lawmakers in New Jersey could not rig the rules in favor of Democrats because it ran contrary to the party's ideals of fair elections and representative, accountable democracy — and everyone from high-ranking leaders to grassroots organizers drew the line at compromising those values.