Being in the middle doesn't win you many friends in politics — at least that was John Farmer's experience when he helped map the boundaries for New Jersey's congressional districts.

Now, he's bringing that lesson to Rutgers University with a new course on gerrymandering.

An independent, Farmer chaired a 13-member state commission tasked with redistricting after the 2010 census. As the tie-breaking vote, he chose the map Republicans favored.

That didn't stop criticism from both sides.

New Jersey’s congressional map from 2011-2021.
New Jersey’s congressional map from 2011-2021.

"You get into the weeds when drawing maps. … It's very frustrating, but if you're doing it right, everyone gets aggravated," the former state attorney general said.

In a room inside the historic Wood Lawn mansion in New Brunswick this fall, Farmer will teach students the history of manipulating electoral boundaries in America and Supreme Court rules dictating how districts are drawn. They will then use a computer program to redraw some of the country's most controversial (and bizarrely shaped) maps.

Farmer envisions the class as a breeding ground for future nonpartisan mapmakers who could represent the nearly 50 percent of New Jersey voters who are independent. Two retired Superior Court judges, Travis L. Francis and Steven Lefelt, gave Farmer the idea for the class last spring.

"We want to develop a stable of people who know how to do this in a nonpartisan way," Farmer said. "We're in such a divided country right now, there should be an interest in something that makes elections fairer."

Looking forward to the 2020 census, Francis said the class "will train students who … will have the necessary knowledge and skills to assist in refocusing redistricting patterns."

Farmer hopes in the future the course turns into an open-source project. Students would be assigned maps to redraw from some of the most gerrymandered states, and the final products would be published on a university website.

The class comes as New Jersey gears up for a November general election in which a U.S. senator and a dozen House representatives will be chosen.

In South Jersey, two Republican seats may be up for grabs as a result of anti-Trump sentiment. Most notably, in the Third District, Rep. Tom MacArthur faces a challenge from Democratic candidate Andy Kim. In the Second District, Democratic State Sen. Jeff  Van Drew is going up against pro-Trump Republican Seth Grossman. But across the country, Farmer said, gerrymandering could downplay any coming "blue wave."

"If the maps across the country are as gerrymandered as people say, then there won't be as much of a blue wave," Farmer said.

New Jersey's boundaries are not considered as skewed as other states'. The map has a slight Republican lean, according to the Brennan Center for Justice Extreme Maps report from 2017, but parties rarely have more than a two-seat advantage. Five of the state's districts are highly competitive, while six are usually represented by Democrats and one usually votes Republican, according to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.

Rutgers Professor John Farmer, a former Attorney General, sat on the New Jersey Redistricting Committee and broke the tie to create the current Congressional map. He will be teaching a new class on gerrymandering this fall at Rutgers.
BEVERLY SCHAEFER
Rutgers Professor John Farmer, a former Attorney General, sat on the New Jersey Redistricting Committee and broke the tie to create the current Congressional map. He will be teaching a new class on gerrymandering this fall at Rutgers.

That's because New Jersey's system is unique, Farmer said. Like three other states, New Jersey has a constitutional commission to redraw the electoral boundaries after each census. Each party appoints six members to the bipartisan commission and submits its own suggested map with built-in advantages. Republicans and Democrats choose a 13th, independent member to act as the tie-breaker.

"Nobody typically is the chair twice because if you do it right, they're all mad at you by the end," he said.

Sitting around a small table, the nine students enrolled in the course will pore over maps as they gain insight from the man behind New Jersey's boundaries.

After the last census, the state lost one congressional seat as South Jersey's population increased and people left North Jersey. One district had to go, so the commission adopted a map that pit former U.S. Rep. Steve Rothman, a Democrat in the Ninth District, against Scott Garrett, a Republican in the Fifth District, where incumbent Garrett had an advantage.

Farmer and 12 Rutgers law students spent months meeting with incumbents and challengers across the state to learn the ins and outs of each district. The final map met key criteria, he said: It is compact, contiguous, and has equal populations in each area.

"I annoyed the hell out of everyone," he said. "I kept insisting on changes to the maps. It was a hard process. … Hopefully students will learn how to navigate it."