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Democrats In New Jersey Will Rework Redistricting Plans After Backlash

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Voters in four states have spoken against so-called gerrymandering. They approved ballot initiatives against partisan efforts to tilt elections by redrawing district boundaries. But not everyone got the memo. New Jersey Democrats sought a political advantage in future elections, only to be blocked by fellow Democrats. Here's Joe Hernandez from member station WHYY.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: For three weeks, New Jersey's top Democrats pushed redistricting changes they said would make election maps more representative of a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans nearly 2 to 1. The plan would have required the redistricting commission to draw district boundaries based on statewide election results for president, U.S. Senate and governor. One of the sponsors, State Senator Nicholas Scutari, said the measure wasn't crafted with bad intentions.

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NICHOLAS SCUTARI: I think that what's happening is there is a certain hysteria that's going on and knee-jerk reactions and people throwing around words like gerrymandering and fixing and...

HERNANDEZ: But Helen Kioukis with the nonpartisan League of Women Voters testified at a recent hearing on the measure that using voter data that favors Democrats will result in district maps that favor Democrats, too.

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HELEN KIOUKIS: Using past voter data to manipulate district boundary lines and predetermine election outcomes for decades to come is gerrymandering.

HERNANDEZ: Democrats have long criticized Republicans for using gerrymandering to entrench their power. And almost as soon as the idea here in New Jersey became public, opponents flipped that criticism on the Democrats themselves.

BEN DWORKIN: One should not be shocked that there is hypocrisy in politics.

HERNANDEZ: Ben Dworkin runs the Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship at Rowan University.

DWORKIN: On one hand, the party is seen as opposing any kind of gerrymandering that Republicans have done. And yet when they have control, they are doing it themselves.

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HERNANDEZ: At a recent protest against the plan outside the state House in Trenton, N.J., many Democrats came out to criticize top state legislators of their own party.

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MARCIA MARLEY: I'm taking off my partisan hat.

HERNANDEZ: Marcia Marley is with Blue Wave New Jersey, a group that tries to elect progressive candidates. She's also a member of the Democratic National Committee.

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MARLEY: How can we say Republicans can't do it but we can as Democrats? Shame on us.

HERNANDEZ: Even the state's top Democrat, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy, opposed the plan, which would have also reduced the power of one of his key political allies. The backlash got so strong that, over the weekend, Democratic leaders scrapped the plan. It's a sign that Democratic politics around the issue are shifting, says Justin Levitt, a professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.

JUSTIN LEVITT: That is unusual - not the fact that Democrats in power in the state legislature were abusing the powers it had - the fact that they got pushback, including from members of their own party about the way they were trying to do it.

HERNANDEZ: Levitt says voters are getting savvy about the issue.

LEVITT: This process can seem like the sort of thing that political scientists care about and the eggheads care about but real people don't necessarily reflect on. But I think that is also changing.

HERNANDEZ: And politicians in other parts of the country thinking about gerrymandering may look at New Jersey as a cautionary tale. For NPR News, I'm Joe Hernandez.

(SOUNDBITE OF THIEVERY CORPORATION'S "FRAGMENTS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.