Democrats have complained for years that Republicans have entrenched their hold on power through gerrymandering. In New Jersey, Democrats stepped all over their party's message by trying to accomplish the same thing themselves.
But in the end, the backlash was too much.
On Saturday, legislative leaders canceled plans for a vote Monday on a new constitutional amendment regarding redistricting.
The New Jersey Legislature had planned to rush through an amendment critics complained would have given Democrats unfair advantages. "The rule on its face looks fair, but it writes an essentially permanent gerrymander in favor of Democrats into the constitution," says Patrick Egan, a professor of politics and public policy at New York University.
Because Democrats already have strong and longstanding majorities in the New Jersey Legislature, Egan says they created a perception problem for their party without gaining any clear advantage.
"The political upside of this seems so low compared to the obvious damage to what Democrats nationwide are trying to do, which is establish themselves against gerrymandering and corruption and for campaign finance reform," Egan says. "It seems like a classic inward state party thinking only of itself, and not thinking of the national implications of its actions."
That dynamic ended up killing the plan.
National Democratic groups and leaders spoke out strongly against the plan, saying that New Jersey legislators shouldn't push through a proposal that appeared to game the system, in the same way they've accused Republicans of doing in other states. New Jersey Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy denounced the plan, as did several liberal groups in the state, ultimately dooming its prospects.
"We do not have to cheat to win," declared Analilia Mejia, head of the New Jersey Working Families Alliance.
The 'Fairness Test'
Legislators maintained that they were, for the most part, simply codifying practices that had long been used in the state's redistricting process.
New Jersey has a redistricting commission made up of five Republicans and five Democrats, with a tie-breaking 11th member appointed by the state Supreme Court. The proposed amendment would have expanded the commission to 13 members, guaranteeing slots for legislators themselves (who sometimes do serve on the commission under the current structure).
The big change, however, would have come with the adoption of a "fairness test" to require require that at least a quarter of the legislative districts be "competitive." The measure defined competitive as districts that voted within five percentage points of the statewide average in races for president, governor and U.S. Senate over the previous decade.
Given the overall Democratic advantage in New Jersey, that means a majority of districts would strongly favor Democrats. As such, the legislature would be significantly more tilted toward Democrats than the state is as a whole. In fact, the new formula could convert a 57 percent average for Democrats in the statewide vote into a 70 percent advantage for the party in legislative seats, according to an analysis by the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.
"A handful of politicians have demonstrated an alarming willingness to forsake the delicate fabric of the state's democracy by advancing a redistricting amendment that benefits them and them alone," says Doug Steinhardt, who chairs the New Jersey Republican Party.
Democratic legislators pointed out that their proposal was based on methods that have been used in the recent past. If the fairness test favors Democrats, that's simply because New Jersey is a Democratic state, they maintained.
"The cries that this will be the end of democracy are mistaken at best and fear-mongering at worst," Assembly Majority Leader Louis Greenwald wrote in an op-ed. If the same fairness test were used in Texas, he writes, "you'd likely see a Republican legislative map because that's been the clear preference of that state's voters for the last decade."
New Jersey's Power Move in Context
For much of the last decade, Democrats have accused Republicans of altering redistricting in a way that creates gerrymandered maps that make it difficult for Democrats to win elections. In Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, a majority of voters statewide supported Democratic state House candidates, yet the GOP retained majority control of all those chambers.
More recently, Democrats have cried foul since the midterm election about Republicans taking advantage of their gerrymandered power to strip power away from incoming Democratic governors and other executive branch officials in Michigan and Wisconsin. North Carolina lawmakers followed a similar course after the 2016 election.
The recent action in New Jersey threatened to undermine Democratic attempts to claim the high ground.
"All the Democrats complaining about Republican gerrymandering and changing of the rules for naked partisan advantage in states like North Carolina and Wisconsin should be concerned with similar attempted manipulation by Democrats in the New Jersey Legislature," says Rick Hasen, an election law expert at the University of California, Irvine.
Democrats have been accused of partisan gerrymandering in other states, notably Maryland. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused on technical grounds to decide a challenge to the state's congressional map, which former Democratic Gov. Martin O'Malley admitted in a deposition had been drawn to favor Democrats.
In October, a federal three-judge panel floated the idea of creating an independent redistricting commission in Maryland, taking the process out of the hands of legislators -- an idea that has gained political traction around the country.
Last month, voters approved the creation of independent commissions in Colorado, Michigan and Utah, while giving primary responsibility for creating districts to a new state demographer in Missouri.
"The redistricting measures all won," says Ruth Greenwood, senior legal counsel for the Campaign Legal Center. "It wasn't just in Democratic or Republican areas. People voted for them all across the states."
Headed for the New Jersey Ballot?
In New Jersey, a constitutional amendment typically requires a three-fifths vote for passage in the legislature. Republicans have enough votes to block such a supermajority vote.
In response, Democrats decided to rush through their proposal. If an amendment is passed by the legislature in consecutive years but not signed into law, it is sent to voters. Democratic legislators had planned to approve the amendment on Monday and then take it up again in January so it could be put to voters on the November 2019 ballot.
The sense that Democrats were making a power play contributed to the controversy.
“I have as much a concern about the process as I do even about the substance,” Gov. Murphy told The New York Times. “I don’t like the substance, but this is classic jam-something-through, and I got elected to stand up against that, and I’m going to.”
The criticism from Murphy and other prominent Democrats including Eric Holder, the former U.S. attorney general who chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, stands in contrast with national Republicans, who have maintained silence about recent overreaches in GOP-controlled states, says Egan. The New Jersey maneuver was also condemned by liberal outlets such as Vox and Slate.
"So far, we haven't seen any kind of parallel on the Republican side," Egan says.