When to draw the lines that determine who represents you in Trenton now an open question

Controversial ballot question seeks to delay legislative redistricting if census numbers arrive late
Credit: Edwin J. Torres/ Governor's Office
Approval of delayed redistricting would allow current lawmakers to run for reelection next year in the same areas they currently represent.

Voters are being asked if New Jersey should postpone its redrawing of state legislative district lines for two years if the U.S. Census Bureau delivers the state’s population count late.

The description alone of the question, which is  on the November ballot, may be enough to make some voters’ eyes glaze over, never mind the eight-paragraph interpretive statement that accompanies it.

But how voters decide the question will affect who represents all state residents in the Legislature, and when new candidates will have the greatest chance of winning a seat.

The timing of the next redistricting has put some progressive activists at odds with top Democrats, whose policies they often support. Those activists argue that a delay in the redrawing of districts will dilute for two more years the votes of minority groups whose numbers have grown over the last decade. Republicans, meanwhile, call the question a blatant power grab by the party in power to keep control over the Legislature for two more years.

On the other hand, supporters of the question say having to use population counts that may not arrive from the Census Bureau until next June will make it impossible for the New Jersey Reapportionment Commission, which reconfigures boundary lines, to do a complete and thoughtful job.

Two-year delay

A “yes” vote, then, approves a constitutional amendment that delays redistricting for two years, allowing current lawmakers to run for reelection next year in the same areas they currently represent. A “no” vote requires the drafting of a new legislative map next year, with elections held in a potentially compressed timeframe.

The New Jersey Constitution requires the redrawing of legislative lines after each decennial census to create districts with roughly equal populations to follow the principle of one person, one vote. Every decade, this creates a problem for New Jersey because the state holds legislative elections in odd-numbered years. Typically, the Census Bureau prioritizes the completion of the counts for New Jersey and Virginia because both hold state elections in the year following the count. In the past, the data has arrived late enough to force the state to push back the primary, usually held on the first Tuesday in June.

This year, the COVID-19 pandemic delayed census takers from doing their work and the count — which is under a judicial mandate to continue through the end of October — is several months behind. Census officials have said they may not be able to provide New Jersey its data until mid-June of next year, after the primary normally would occur.

According to the state Constitution, the 10-member commission has a month from the time it receives the new census counts to redraw the state’s map of 40 districts. If it deadlocks — it always has in the past because the chairs of the Democratic and Republican parties each appoint half the members — the chief justice of the state Supreme Court appoints an 11th member. That member gets an additional month to achieve a majority vote on a map. The current map favors Democrats.

Given these rules and realities, as well as the legal deadlines surrounding elections, the 2021 primary could not occur until late October, mere weeks before the general election, the Democrats who voted to put this question on the ballot say.

The case for a ‘no’ vote

But opponents contend that election deadlines can be changed — just about all the rules for this year’s elections were revised due to the pandemic. Relaxed deadlines would allow for an earlier primary, though it would still occur in the fall, rather than June.

When lawmakers quickly considered the constitutional amendment over the summer, several activists had suggested other alterations that, because legislators did not include them in the final ballot question, now would need a separate constitutional amendment unless the political parties agreed otherwise. If the members of the legislative Apportionment Commission were to agree to a deadlock on receipt of the census counts, Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner could appoint an 11th member right away and shave about a month off the process, enabling the primary to occur that much earlier.

They also suggested that New Jersey switch its legislative elections to even-numbered years, like nearly every other state, so there would be ample time to create a new map. That, too, would need a constitutional amendment, however, as the current Constitution requires the new Legislature to commence work on the second Tuesday of January in even-numbered years, meaning the election would have to be held in odd-numbered years.

If the question on the ballot is approved, the redrawing of the state’s 40 legislative districts would be postponed until as late as March 1, 2022. That would keep the current district lines in place until the 2023 election, for a total of 12 years, instead of the 10 now mandated in the Constitution.

Diversity is an issue

Critics say that New Jersey is much more diverse now than when the current map was drawn almost a decade ago. Non-Hispanic whites made up about 55% of residents in 2019, down from more than 59% in 2010. At the same time, the proportion of Asians and Hispanics has increased, and advocates say these groups should get the chance to elect representatives who share their race or ethnicity next year and not have to wait two more years.

They also call arbitrary the Feb. 15 date by which the state must receive its population data or postpone redistricting. Republican lawmakers noted that New Jersey got its counts later than that date in 2001 and 2011 and still drew new maps to be used in the elections in those years.

Republican lawmakers also complain that the amendment would make this procedure permanent, for all future censuses, rather than just addressing the current extraordinary pandemic that is creating the time crunch.

Even some supporters of the question are not happy with its provisions. But they say the amendment that lawmakers put on the ballot is the only one available. If it is not approved, they fear the rush to quickly draw a map in time for primary and general elections would only lead to the creation of districts that do not best reflect the interests or wishes of Hispanic and Asian communities and these districts would remain in effect for a decade.