Op-Ed: A ‘yes’ on ballot question #3 gives us time to get reapportionment right

John W. Bartlett | October 8, 2020 | Opinion, Politics
Voting ‘yes’ will help ensure everyone has an equal shot at getting onto the primary ballot
John W. Bartlett

On New Jersey Ballot Question #3, I respectfully part ways with some of my fellow progressives. I will be voting “yes,” and encourage you to do so as well. As an elected official and an election lawyer, let me tell you why.

Question #3 asks voters to approve an amendment to the New Jersey Constitution that will change the likely schedule for redrawing the boundaries of our state’s 40 legislative districts. Adopting the amendment is a necessary response to this year’s delayed census count and is the best choice to ensure redistricting has the democratic effects we desire.

A “yes” vote will allow the New Jersey Apportionment Commission to complete its work in time for the 2023 state midterm election, instead of the 2021 gubernatorial election. (Note: The gubernatorial election only occurs in a year ending in 1 every other decade.)

If a majority of voters approve, in 2021 the Legislature will run for election/reelection in the districts as currently drawn. The Apportionment Commission will then have ample time to redraw the lines, and when the entire Legislature runs for reelection in 2023 it will be in the newly drawn districts. (Yes, you read that correctly: If Question #3 passes, state senators will run in 2021 for a two-year term, then for four-year terms in 2023 and 2027.)

None of this will affect congressional redistricting, which is performed by the separately constituted New Jersey Redistricting Commission, because either way there is plenty of time to redraw those lines before the 2022 primary election. Also, the referendum does not change the constitutional schedule for appointment of the Reapportionment Commission’s members by the political parties: The Commission’s members will be appointed by Nov. 15 of this year.

First, you may ask: Why do we need a constitutional amendment?  Our state Constitution is far more detailed and specific than the U.S. Constitution. Among other things, it currently prescribes that legislative district lines will be redrawn in time for the primary election in each year ending in 1. Thus, any extension of the redrawing beyond spring 2021 — which will create newly configured districts in time for the 2023 election — cannot be a statute. That would be unconstitutional. It must be a constitutional amendment.

Redistricting should not be rushed

So, why do I support a “yes” vote on Ballot Question #3? Simply, I think redistricting shouldn’t be rushed. To understand what I mean, consider the way in which two important cycles line up. Specifically:

(1)  The census-count cycle: Redistricting is about redrawing the boundaries so that each legislative district is of equal population — so each of our legislators is representing the same number of people. This year, COVID-19 has made counting difficult and the census count has been extended from its ordinary end date of Aug. 15 to Oct. 31. When the census runs on schedule, there’s ample time for the Census Bureau to prepare the data needed for redistricting by Dec. 31, 2020. This year, we may not have town-by-town, block-by-block population data until April 30, 2021.

(2)  The primaryelection cycle: To get to the November general election as a candidate for any office, from the president down to the municipal council, you have to win the primary in June. To get on the June primary ballot, you have to file a petition signed by dozens or hundreds of voters in your jurisdiction. Those petitions have to be filed by the beginning of April — the deadline for collecting ballot signatures. You can’t collect signatures until you know who your constituents are. In other words, the map is the essential first step.

In a normal year, we get the census data early in the new year. That gives the commission a solid two months to come up with a new map. For communities that think the data shows they should have a district drawn to reflect their majority or plurality, it gives them time to lobby the commission. Who might that be this cycle? — Latinx folks in Dover and elsewhere in northern New Jersey and various Asian American communities in northern and central parts of the state, for starters. Probably others too. Then, once the maps are drawn, it gives anyone who wants to be a candidate a month or more to gather signatures before they’re due around April 1.

Downsides of maintaining the status quo

Keeping the status quo in place smashes the census cycle up against the primary cycle, with three likely effects:

(1)  Rushing the Reapportionment Commission so they’ll have less time to hear from constituencies making the case for meaningful changes to the map.

(2)  Shrinking the time that candidates will have for signature collection, possibly down to just days.

(3)  Maybe even forcing New Jersey to push its primary election into July or August (as we did this year for public health reasons), just to allow time for the foregoing two delays.

Some progressive voices have expressed opposition to the ballot question, and even making analogies to Jim Crow laws designed to entrench a Legislature less diverse than our state’s. I’ve spent almost 20 years doing voting rights work, and the past year working to ensure a complete census count in my diverse county, so don’t think for a minute I’d support a plan that matched that description.

If you’re a fan of small “d” democracy, in which anyone has an equal shot at getting onto the primary ballot, then people who aren’t already “in the room” need to be on a more level playing field. A rushed process favors those already in power.

Communities need the chance to make the case — and generate the political pressure — for a map that favors them. A rushed process denies them that.

Individual candidates need the time for grassroots organizing and signature collecting. If candidates only have a few days to gather hundreds of petition signatures, that limits ballot access for primary challengers.

And we know from 2013 that rescheduling an election to an unfamiliar date depresses turnout. In that case, it was a Wednesday in October and only 24% of New Jerseyans came out to elect Cory Booker to the U.S. Senate — a record low.

Proposals for bigger changes, while laudable, are a longer-term project and will not be available to respond to next year’s needs.

Wait two years and get it right

Finally, if by some miracle we get the census reapportionment data sooner than expected, then redistricting goes ahead in 2021 as planned, even with your “yes” vote: We only punt to 2023 if the state doesn’t have needed census data in hand by Feb. 15, 2021.

Would it be awesome if we could do everything — thoughtful reapportionment, grassroots organizing and a timely primary — in 2021? Absolutely. But due to this year’s pandemic, the reality on the ground is that we can’t keep to the ordinary decennial schedule: Census data will be delayed. Attentively redrawing the lines will take time. And voters are entitled to as normal a 2021 election cycle as public health allows.

Adopting this constitutional amendment will delay the reshaping of our legislative districts to reflect current population movement and emerging minority communities by two years. But a rushed process risks not responding effectively to those new realities at all. Given what’s at stake, I’d rather wait two more years, and get it right, and give all candidates an equal shot at the 2021 and 2023 primary ballots, than rush, create barriers to small “d” democracy and lock in a bad map for 10 more years.

So I’m voting “yes” on Public Question #3.