Imagine that the majority party of a southern state that was almost half people of color — Georgia or South Carolina, for example — voted to postpone redistricting next year for an entire election cycle. Citing the pandemic, they pushed through a permanent change to the state constitution, thereby preventing communities of color from their fair representation for two more years. What would be the response? Outcries of partisanship? Invocations of Jim Crow?
This is exactly what happened on July 30, but instead of in a southern state, it happened here in New Jersey.
Now it is up to New Jersey voters to defeat this measure by voting “no” in November.
Redistricting is wonky and complex — but it is foundational to our democracy. It is the process of redrawing our districts based on population shifts revealed in the most recent census data. People within a given district elect their state representatives, so where we draw the lines is critical. If we do it right, we have a government that is representative of the people. If we do it wrong, we group people in distorted or outdated ways that give some people less electoral power than others.
Under normal circumstances, the federal government provides census data to New Jersey (and Virginia) in February, earlier than other states, since we hold odd-year elections. Because the pandemic has slowed down census data collection, this data might not be delivered in time in 2021 for us to redraw our districts.
So what’s the answer?
The resolution (ACR-188) that our Legislature just passed says, let’s just use our current map from 2010!
Much more racially diverse than ten years ago
But New Jersey today is not the New Jersey of ten years ago, when the current map was drawn. Most notably, our population is significantly more racially diverse now than it was then, with people of color comprising 45% of our population — a 10.6% increase from a decade ago.
Making matters worse, the constitutional amendment on the ballot doesn’t only apply for next year’s election, but says that for any year following the census, if the data is not provided by Feb. 15, the existing map would be used for another election cycle. This means that, for instance, if the Census 2020 data is delayed, the old map would be used until 2023.
To be sure, with the risk of receiving census data late, there are no perfect solutions to this challenge. But there are other solutions. We could change election dates next year. We could switch from odd-year to even-year elections like most of the nation have, thereby preventing this issue from coming up again. And if we do use the existing map in 2021, we could do so for just one year and not make this scheme permanent.
Instead, the legislative majority picked the one option where the only people harmed — the only people asked to make this sacrifice to their representation — are communities of color.
This is wrong. During this extraordinary moment of racial-justice awakening in our country and New Jersey, with the cracks of structural racism being exposed in our foundation, this measure follows in the long tradition of governments choosing power at the expense of communities of color. We must not let democracy become another crack.
The effect on communities of color
To justify their effort, supporters of the plan are misleading the public with arguments that this is being done to help communities of color. They’re even calling it the “Redistricting Fairness Resolution.”
But their arguments are specious.
They say that, due to COVID-19, we have low census response rates in municipalities with large numbers of people of color, including undocumented people, and their solution will provide time to increase that count and not use incomplete data. A laudable sentiment, but the proposal has no effect on how long the census bureau will continue its count or when it will deliver the data.
In addition, while the assumption has been that the census data would be delivered later than usual next year, the Trump administration and the U.S. Senate majority have indicated that they will not extend the census bureau’s statutory deadline to provide data to the president. While this is alarming because it will greatly reduce chances for a full count, ACR-188 does not solve the problem. If the president receives the census data by Dec. 31, in all likelihood New Jersey will receive the data before Feb. 15, which would mean that the Legislature’s resolution would not even be triggered next year. Yet we’d be stuck with a constitutional provision that would haunt us in future cycles.
They also say that this needs to be permanent because it would cause less chaos in the future and because some are uncomfortable with having a one-off constitutional amendment. This is perhaps the most nonsensical argument in support of this proposal. A one-off constitutional amendment is legal and would be tailored to a pandemic-caused problem.
This will not cause less chaos in future cycles. We will never know beforehand which map will be in effect for the first two years following a census. At any given time we would have a map that is in effect for eight years, 10 years, or 12 years. It would also set us up for litigation every cycle.
For years now, advocates have urged the Legislature to pass real redistricting reform that would ensure that racial equity, transparency and public hearings are built into our redistricting process. Instead, over and over, the majority has attempted to make our process more partisan. Now, they have pushed forward with a proposal that serves their personal interests in maintaining their seats. At the very least, the Legislature should also pass meaningful reform.
In November, it will be up to the voters to reject this constitutional amendment and stand for the interests of the people of New Jersey, especially its communities of color — and not its elected officials.
As is always the case, it is up to us to stand for democracy.
Henal Patel is Director of Democracy & Justice, NJ Institute for Social Justice.
Other signatories to this Op-Ed:
- Elise Boddie, Founder, The Inclusion Project, Rutgers Law School
- Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, Executive Director, Salvation and Social Justice
- Dr. Patricia Campos-Medina, President, LUPE PAC
- Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF
- Jerry Harris, Vice Chair, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice Board of Trustees
- Brandon McKoy, President, New Jersey Policy Perspective
- Richard T. Smith, President, NAACP New Jersey State Conference