Why new boundaries for NJ’s legislative districts are unlikely anytime soon

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | November 30, 2020 | Politics
Voter approval of ballot question allows for postponement. Progressive groups dissatisfied

The membership of the commission charged with redrawing the boundaries of New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts is now set, even though its work may be more than a year away.

It is unlikely that the New Jersey Apportionment Commission will be creating boundary lines to be used in next year’s state elections. Voters this month approved a constitutional amendment that postpones that work if the 2020 U.S. Census provides new population estimates after Feb. 15, which is almost a certainty.

That amendment allows for delaying the redrawing of districts until as late as March 1, 2022, depending on when the state receives its official census counts. Democrats in the Legislature pushed through the measure with only days to spare to make the ballot; it later won with 58% voter support and was backed by every county except Ocean, Salem and Warren.

The state Constitution requires that legislative districts be reconfigured every decade to reflect the population based on census data. The goal is to keep districts at roughly the same size, with that decennial census count providing the checkpoint to adjust for population shifts. All New Jerseyans have a stake in the process of drawing the district maps, which is done largely behind closed doors; state lawmakers are responsible for many of the laws that citizens deal with every day — from the $11 hourly minimum wage to the 25-mile-an-hour speed limit in school zones.

President Trump’s intervention

Because New Jersey holds its state elections in odd-numbered years — meant to divorce them from federal balloting — the Census Bureau has tried to get the state its counts early, but meeting a Feb. 15 deadline does not always happen. For the 2020 census, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the bureau to delay sending enumerators into the field and the New York Times recently reported that census data calculations would not be completed before at least Jan. 26. The counts are supposed to be presented to the president by Dec. 31. Last spring, the bureau had asked Congress to extend that deadline to April 2021, but President Trump opposed an extension.

The constitutional amendment that New Jersey voters approved allows for next year’s legislative elections to occur using current district boundaries and for new lines to be created for the 2023 election. That means next year’s races will be held in the existing districts, even though the state has seen a number of population shifts over the last decade, including a movement from the suburbs to cities and to Ocean County. New Jersey’s population has also diversified: Non-Hispanic whites made up about 55% of residents in 2019, down from more than 59% in 2010, while the proportion of Asians increased from 8% to 10% and Hispanics from roughly 18% to about 21%.

That increase in the Latino population to more than one in five residents is one that advocates say could lead to increased representation for Hispanics in Trenton. But they now say that opportunity most likely will have to wait for two more years because of the constitutional amendment. And they also have expressed frustration that the 10-member commission does not contain a single Latino member.

The Constitution gives each head of the state’s two major political parties the authority to appoint five members to the commission. The members chosen this year are mostly male, mostly white political insiders.

‘Lack of diversity’

Brandon McKoy, chief executive of the left-leaning think tank New Jersey Policy Perspective, lamented in a recent blog post that the commission’s members “do not come close to reflecting the true diversity of the Garden State.” That lack of diversity, coupled with the two-year delay in new district boundaries further hurts the ability of nonwhite communities to gain more political power and representation, he said.

Fair Districts New Jersey, a coalition of groups that have been trying to change the way the state redraws the boundaries, issued a statement calling the recent appointments “calculated compromises made to protect political interests rather than to serve New Jersey voters.”

These and other progressive groups succeeded in stopping Democratic legislative leaders in late 2018 from revising the redistricting process in a way many had complained would have helped Democrats. But they have been unable to get lawmakers to pass any of the reforms they have suggested to make the process fairer, the most important of which would be having an independent commission that includes community members do the work “to minimize partisanship and reduce political influence” and gerrymandering.

The current redistricting process, enshrined in the state Constitution, dates to 1966, but subject to subsequent court decisions.

Once the governor receives census population counts, the 10-member commission has 30 days to create boundary lines for the 40 districts based on that data. The only criteria in the Constitution are that the districts have roughly the same populations, be as compact as possible and not divide any but the largest municipalities. Courts, however, have allowed for deviations from these rules; for instance, both Newark and Jersey City are split into two districts, and were each split into three districts in the previous map, in place from 2001 through 2011.

A trip to court

District maps often wind up in the courts because the commission makeup, split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, essentially guarantees that one party will win.

What happens, typically, is that each party’s members draw up a map that favors its current members and interests while still hopefully having a good chance at standing up to judicial scrutiny. No public input is required, though each commission typically holds public hearings. When it comes time to vote on a map, historically, the commission deadlocks at 5-5.

At this point, the chief justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court appoints a neutral 11th member and the commission gets another 30 days to complete a plan. In theory, that member can try to work with both sides to make a map on which all can agree. As a practical matter, that person winds up siding with one party or the other.

In 2011, the 11th member was Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal, who chose the Democrats’ map. A decade earlier, the Democrats also won. In the 2001 election, control of the Legislature flipped from Republican in both houses to a Democratic Assembly and split Senate for two years, after which Democrats also took control of the Senate. The Legislature has been controlled by Democrats ever since.

Democrats have a more than 1-million advantage in voter registration over Republicans, so it is hard to imagine the party losing legislative control except in a gerrymandered red map.

It is unclear how the process will play out this time around, or even when it will begin, with the timing of the delivery of census data still uncertain. What those numbers show, both in overall population and in racial and ethnic breakdowns, will determine how each party’s delegation draws a map, which one an 11th member on the commission favors and how defensible it is in court.