Red Bank Group Tackles Gerrymandering

November 20, 2017
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Map of the New Jersey state legislative districts from 2011
through 2020.

By John Burton |

RED BANK — How state and legislative districts are drawn – seemingly to protect the elected legislators rather than to accommodate constituents – has become the latest cause célèbre undertaken by a local activist group.

The Greater Red Bank Women’s Initiative is working to bring about what it hopes will be more logically drawn geographic legislative districts for the future and minimizing politics in the redistricting process.

“The more we looked at this issue, the more we felt that, while it would take time, for the future of voting in this country and to truly have people’s vote count, this is an issue that needs to be tackled,” said Ellen Herman, a Red Bank resident who is the initiative co-founder and also chairs the organization’s voting committee.

This election season the Initiative began tackling the issue of gerrymandering – the process of drawing districts for the benefit of the officeholder or the holder’s political party. The group started by collecting signatures on a petition, getting about 1,200 names, and calling upon all of the candidates running in statewide elections this year to support an amendment to the state Constitution to change the way districts are drawn. The petition seeks to establish an independent, nonpartisan body that would create a set of criteria for drafting the districts.

Congressional and state legislative districts are redrafted every 10 years, following the U.S. Census counts detailing population shifts. The districts are drawn and approved by state legislatures, supposedly taking into account those population changes. But the process has come under strong criticism that officials are really protecting their and their parties’ self interest, drawing the maps in a way that ensures their re-election. “We are kind of saying both parties are guilty of this gerrymandering,” Herman said.

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The next U.S. Census will be in 2020 with the redistricting process occurring after the census is completed.

Others have argued that this alleged subversion of the process has compounded the extreme partisanship witnessed in the U.S. Congress. Incumbents, some noted, don’t worry about general election contests, but only fear primary challenges from their parties’ more extreme flanks; that, some say, discourages the incumbents from reaching across the aisle to the opposing side to make compromises, creating even more gridlock.

The way districts are being drawn, “leaves the voters out in the cold in terms of holding elected officials accountable,” said Dan Vicuna, national redistricting manager for Common Cause, a national public policy watchdog group, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

The Women’s Initiative had sent out its petition to hundreds of candidates across the state. The response, however, was less than encouraging, Herman acknowledged.

“The response has been very, very small,” she said, adding they really only heard from third party candidates. “I was especially disappointed to not hear back from the gubernatorial candidates,” Herman said, given the role the governor plays in the process. The governor eventually has to sign off on the redistricting.

The Initiative has decided to ramp up its efforts on this issue, with Herman indicating the organization is looking to partner with statewide organizations to hold officials accountable. “Hopefully, once this is brought statewide and the numbers are much larger,” in response to the petition, she said, “we may force people to speak to this issue.”

“This is something that the organization feels strongly about. I feel strongly about it,” Herman said.

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This issue reaches well beyond New Jersey. “There is a lot of concern,” Common Cause’s Vicuna observed. “There are a lot of activists around the country who see gerrymandering as the root of why politics are broken.”

There are those working on a ballot initiative in Ohio and in Michigan there are efforts to bring an independent citizens’ redistricting commission to the state, with similar efforts underway in Utah, Vicuna said.

During its current session, the U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a case involving Wisconsin’s state Assembly redistricting and whether the gerrymandering went so far as to violate voters’ constitutional rights.

“The baseline requirement of democracy is that the voters can hold politicians accountable on Election Day; that the people can choose their politicians, not the other way around,” Vicuna said, “and that’s what’s happening here.”

The Greater Red Bank Women’s Initiative is an issues-based organization founded by Herman and Suellen Sims following the 2016 presidential election, because they were unhappy with the rhetoric and planned policies. Despite what its political leanings appear to be, Herman maintained, “I’d like to think of us as an organization that’s open and welcome to anyone who has an interest in the issues we pursue.”

The group has grown to approximately 600, according to Herman.

This article was first published in the Nov. 16-23, 2017 print edition of the Two River Times.

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