Opinion: Rethinking NJ’s congressional map for the 2020s

Brad Van Arnum | January 4, 2021 | Opinion, Politics
The redistricting commission needs to give serious thought about how distinct communities in the state are currently divided in ways that diminish their voice in Congress
Brad Van Arnum

In 2021, every state will redraw its congressional Districts to ensure that they remain equal in population, based on the results of the 2020 Census. New Jersey, which currently has 12 members in the House of Representatives, is no exception. Although most states draw Districts within their Legislature, subject to the veto of the governor, New Jersey has for decades redrawn its Districts using a political commission that gives the governor no formal role in redistricting. The 12-member commission initially consists of six Democrats and six Republicans, with a 13th member added later in the process if a deadlock persists, which is the norm.

In 2011, the redistricting commission had to consider how to draw a new congressional map of New Jersey with one less House seat, due to the state’s slow population growth relative to that of the nation. This cycle, New Jersey will very likely maintain all 12 of its seats in Congress, allowing the commission to better focus on how to make the existing Districts more representative of the state’s diversity and political geography.

New Jersey has three congressional districts in the north, the 5th, 7th and 11th, that merit special attention during this upcoming redistricting cycle. All three are currently competitive House seats held by Democrats. In the 2016 presidential election, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton won the 7th District by about 1%, while President Donald Trump won the 5th and 11th by roughly 1% apiece. On the whole, these three districts are affluent, highly educated and predominantly white. They also represent a major portion of the suburbs of New York City in New Jersey.

The 5th District, which currently consists of parts of Bergen, Passaic, Sussex, and Warren counties, is shown in the map in blue. It has had a similar configuration for decades, but there is a case to be made for reorienting it to include only towns in Bergen and Passaic counties. The current district is polarized, with two distinct halves, and representing its interests in Congress is no simple task. After all, the exurban and rural towns of Sussex and Warren counties have little in common with the more suburban and urban parts of Bergen County. Redrawing the 5th to only include parts of Bergen and Passaic counties would make the district significantly more compact and cohesive and could be done in a manner that still keeps the seat highly competitive, with both parties having a chance to win it every two years.

Making these changes to the 5th would require redrawing the 7th and 11th Districts as well. As shown above, the 7th District currently spans from Union County to the border with Pennsylvania in Hunterdon and Warren counties. It also includes much of Somerset County, the western portion of Morris County, and a single town in Essex County. As with the 5th District, the 7th combines suburban towns in proximity to New York City with rural areas much further west. Although it would be a departure from prior maps, the 7th could be redrawn as a predominantly rural and exurban seat that would give northwest New Jersey its own voice in Congress. A new 7th might add Sussex and Warren counties to its current boundaries while trading suburban towns such as Westfield, Millburn, and Summit to the 11th District. The result would be a much more Republican district, but one that is arguably more representative of conservative northwest Jersey, which is currently split between multiple districts.

Given these changes, the 11th could then become a true suburban district, representing the towns in Essex, Morris and Union counties that share similar characteristics, being the inner-ring suburbs of New York City. With new boundaries, the 11th would become more Democratic than its present configuration, but it would not be uncompetitive by any means: Republicans could still expect to win the seat at times. As with the proposed changes to the 5th and 7th Districts, the 11th would become a more cohesive district with a clearer set of common interests that could be better articulated in Congress.

Taken together, these changes to the state’s congressional map would give both Democrats and Republicans something to be pleased with, a more compact but still competitive 5th, a redder and more rural 7th and a more suburban, bluer 11th District.

Besides better uniting areas with similar interests, this proposed congressional map of northern New Jersey is arguably a visual improvement over the current map. The new 5th would lose its unusual L-shape, while the new 7th would be geographically larger than the current version but also more compact. Additionally, fewer counties would be split by changing these three districts in the way described. Sussex and Warren counties would not be divided at all, and Passaic and Essex counties would each be divided one less time than they currently are.

The state’s congressional redistricting commission, whose work will begin in earnest in the second half of 2021, has much to consider. With the advantage of not having to redraw the state with one less district, as was the case a decade ago, the commission needs to give serious thought about how the current map falls short, and how distinct communities in the state are currently divided in ways that diminish their voice in Congress.