By Kelly Nicholaides
for Montclair Local

Princeton resident Reed Gusciora planned to move in order to run for re-election to Assembly after his legislative district changed. Instead of introducing himself to new constituents, he looked for a home in Trenton, which remained in the 16th Legislative District that previously included Princeton.

Every 10 years, states redraw legislative maps to reflect updated Census data. Voters-rights groups want reforms in place to add public input and prevent gerrymandering, in which politicians pick voters by manipulating voting maps resulting in voter suppression and reduced competition in elections.

A coalition held a “Redistricting Reform Best Practices for a Fairer New Jersey” forum at Montclair State University on Feb. 13 to advocate for changing the state constitution to add transparency in legislative redistricting and to get independent decision makers involved in the process of redrawing legislative maps.

The Garden State has 40 legislative districts across 19 counties.

“We want to provide residents with the knowledge and tools to understand how redistricting affects them,” said Nancy Hedinger, President of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

The time span between the release of the 2020 Census results and the filing date for the 2021 New Jersey elections, is not enough time to analyze the population data and redraw the maps, the groups say.

“People move, communities get smaller, cities like Jersey City grow, but others are depleted. So we want to take into account how redistricting affects New Jersey,” said Brigid Callahan Harrison, Professor of Political Science and Law at Montclair State University.

The state Redistricting Commission includes five Democrats and five Republicans. An 11th member is a tie breaker. “This provides some interesting backroom drama in which software is used to maximize where one could get the maximum level of legislators their party could map,” said Callahan Harrison. “The continuity of representation is valued in incumbency.  Legislative work is better when they’re professionalized, develop an expertise and relationships. We have 80 senators and 40 assembly members. Some districts draw maps to protect incumbents. In some way, competition is healthy by increasing voter turnout and limiting corruption. The casual relationship is of little concern for municipality of a district’s party.”

Essex County is split into six legislative districts, but it could easily be four with its estimated 800,000 residents, said Helen Kioukis, lead organizer for the Fair Districts New Jersey campaign.

“Redistricting affects the fundamental power of our democracy. Reforming redistricting is not going to solve all issues but it’s an important component and needs to be reexamined when it suppresses voters or it is used as a tool to keep people out of the decision making process regarding the maps. Some counties are being divided many more times than they need to in order to meet population threshold [of 225,000]. More districts mean more for the county to manage and more communities broken apart.”

Essex County’s six legislative districts are 26, 27, 28, 29, 34 and 40. Montclair is part of District 34, which  includes parts of Essex and Passaic County. Montclair’s legislative district did not change after the 2000 and 2010 Censuses, but Woodland Park was dropped from District 34. District 29 includes Newark and Belleville. District 28 is Bloomfield, Glen Ridge, Irvington, Newark and Nutley.

District 34 state legislators include Senator Nia Gill and Assembly members Thomas Giblin and Britnee Timberlake — all Democrats in the mostly-blue Essex County that the group says is more purple due to some conservative voters.

The Supreme Court prohibits racial gerrymandering, which is spreading minorities across voting districts, aimed at preventing them from electing their preferred candidates.

States such as California, Michigan, Utah, Missouri, Colorado and California have created redistricting reforms such as using independent commissions, the coalition noted.

The aim of redistricting is not necessarily to make any district more equally represented [by party affiliation]. “The goal is not competitiveness, but if the opposite is true, the district is operating so that it draws political competition out,” Callahan Harrison said.

The focus should be on giving the voters a voice in the redistricting, Kioukis noted. She referenced Supreme Court cases in other states, including Pennsylvania where the redrawing of legislative map was ruled unconstitutional after a 29-year-old piano teacher questioned why one town in her county was in a different legislative district.

Montclair NAACP President Al Pelham said it’s difficult to help the average voter understand the importance of the redistricting process. “People don’t come out to vote as it is now, so educating the public in the process of redistricting is an important issue that is going to take a lot of work. Our [NAACP] focus is voter registration,” said Pelham.