Reflections on a Broken Process Upon the Passing of Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal
The recent passing of esteemed Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal has brought with it accolades for and fond remembrances of an individual who without a doubt left an indelible mark in the areas of academia and politics. I for one was never a student of Professor Rosenthal’s however I am keenly aware of influence he wielded in the realm of NJ politics, Save Jerseyans.
Most recently, Dr. Rosenthal served as the tie-breaking vote on the NJ Legislative Redistricting Commission in 2011 which was responsible for drawing the map creating the forty legislative districts in the state. This map will stay in place for a decade. While I hesitate in writing ill of the recently departed, I feel it is warranted to aver that in his capacity as the Tiebreaker for the 2011 Legislative Redistricting Commission, Professor Rosenthal hardly merits praise but rather ignominy.
In making his map selection Dr. Rosenthal set forth that one of the criterion, he employed was the principle of “Continuity of Representation” – better known to the rest of us as incumbency protection. In fact, it did not take long to see the fruits of his disturbing, and might I add nowhere to be found in the NJ Constitution, philosophy play out as later in 2011 all 120 seats of the NJ Legislature were at stake.
110 out of 120 incumbent legislators were seeking reelection to either the seats they already held, a seat in a newly formed district, or in a couple of cases, sitting members of the General Assembly seeking a Senate seat. Out of the 110 seeking reelection, 108 or 98.2% were reelected. Most elections were double digit landslides with the closest race coming in with a 6% margin of victory. These are pretty staggering figures and one wonders whether the numbers are so high because of the electorate’s overwhelming approval of the job our Legislature has been doing or whether there is another reason at play. I believe it is more of the latter and can be directly attributed to the above-mentioned redistricting process.
Following the once per decade national census, the fifty states are empowered with the duty to redraw their congressional district lines as well as their state legislative district lines. In New Jersey, both the Democratic and Republican parties select members (usually sitting legislators) to a redistricting commission where each side proposes new legislative maps, ostensibly using guidelines set forth in the New Jersey Constitution.
In reality, they do so more in a manner that would gain them an electoral advantage in the next ten years’ worth of elections, while at the same time placing their incumbents in “safe” districts. If you remember your high school government class, you might recall that this shady practice is known as gerrymandering. Invariably, the two sides never agree on a map and a tiebreaking vote is appointed by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court and in 2011 this was Professor Rosenthal. In 2013, where it appears that Governor Chris Christie will be re-elected in a landslide, it would be natural to think that his coattails would bring along with it a significant shift in power in the General Assembly and Senate. Most in the know realize that this is a long shot as Professor Rosenthal’s legislative map is so tightly wound in favor of incumbents that we are likely to see nothing more than the status quo under the gold dome in Trenton as a result of the election of 2013.
With the passing of Professor Rosenthal, now perhaps is the time to also bid good bye to the gerrymandering and incumbency protection he championed. One should think that there has got to be a more equitable way to go through this redistricting process; a process that most citizens do not realize is even happening and a process that has heretofore had more impact on the makeup of our elected officials than any given election. In this age of advancing technology, I ask why we allow this redistricting process to be driven by partisans who essentially place their own political survival ahead of the guidelines set forth by the Constitution. It would seem reasonable to me that a relatively simple computer program be written (and yes, even agreed upon by both Republicans and Democrats) that would accomplish both the state legislative and congressional redistricting based solely on constitutional guidelines and do so in a matter of seconds once the new census data is entered. This would no doubt lead to more competitive districts where incumbents could no longer assume automatic reelection. The number of life-long politicians would be dramatically reduced and those that were ultimately selected through more competitive elections would be a more responsive group who could no longer take their constituents for granted.
While there are cases to be made for reform in many facets of government, none would have more of an impact on our political landscape than a change to the way our legislative and congressional districts are drawn every ten years. However, in order to effectuate the necessary change, it would begin with an act of the NJ Legislature, the very same group that heretofore has done just about anything to protect their multi-year incumbencies.