November 13, 2019

Forum Seeks End to Gerrymandering, “To Make Democracy Work Better” in NJ

By Donald Gilpin

With gerrymandering threatening to undermine the goal of fair elections in New Jersey and throughout the country, the League of Women Voters (LWV) of New Jersey, along with the Fair Districts New Jersey Coalition and the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, will be hosting a town hall, “Ending Gerrymandering with People-Powered Reforms,” on Thursday, November 14 at 4 p.m. in Princeton University’s McCosh Hall, Room 28.

Three members — one a Republican, one a Democrat, one unaffiliated — of California’s first independent, citizen-led Redistricting Commission will be featured speakers, with Princeton University Neuroscience Professor and Princeton Gerrymandering Project (PGP) Director Sam Wang moderating.

“One person, one vote is essential to our democracy,” said PGP National Coordinator Jason Rhode. “Gerrymandering strikes at the heart of democratic politics. If the lines are not drawn fairly, how you vote matters less. I can’t think of anything more fundamental to our democracy at this moment than fair redistricting.”

Gerrymandering implies a practice where the party or legislators in control draw voting maps that will favor their candidates.

Wang emphasized the impact of the California Redistricting Commission (CRC). “Come meet commissioners who redrew California’s legislative districts — and made history!” he tweeted last week. After a Supreme Court decision in June that federal courts cannot hear challenges to partisan gerrymandering, Wang noted that the battle over gerrymandering has moved to the states.

“California provides an exciting example of how citizens can power reform through independent commissions,” he said. “That’s just one of many ways forward in the national movement to make government more responsive to voters.”

The California commissioners have been traveling around the country to discuss the importance of community-centric redistricting reform and share their experiences in redrawing California’s district maps. Considered a model for the country, the CRC won a grant from the Harvard School of Government for its ability to make a government more representative, expand public participation in electoral politics, and involve citizens in governance in new, creative ways.

“The California Commission’s visit will allow New Jerseyans to learn more about what’s needed to ensure fair maps are in place for the next decade and beyond,” said LWV Program Associate Helen Kioukis, who is organizer for the Fair Districts New Jersey campaign.

She went on, “As we continue advocating for state-level redistricting reform and fair maps for New Jersey residents, we are excited for the opportunity to highlight the accomplishments of the California commissioners and encourage public engagement in the redistricting process.”

Emphasizing that districting rules need to be stronger to prevent partisan, racial, and incumbent-protecting gerrymandering, she added, “This is a top priority for our organization, to make democracy work better in New Jersey. If districts aren’t drawn fairly, it’s impossible to hold fair elections.”

The visiting California commissioners will include Gil Ontai, an architect and urban planer; M. Andre Parvenu, a planning consultant for Los Angeles Neighborhood Councils; and Jeanne Raya, a small business owner who works as an insurance agency principal.   

“The California example shows what’s possible when voters are empowered to control the process,” Kioukis noted. “Things improved in California after their maps were put in place.”