Last week, the final members of the commission charged with the decennial redrawing New Jersey’s congressional district boundaries were named. Now all they need is the data.
Every 10 years, as required by the Constitution, each state reconfigures its congressional districts in response to population changes measured by the official U.S. census count. The Census Bureau uses a formula to determine how many members of the House of Representatives each state will get and then each state creates its own districts of roughly equal population.
This year, New Jersey’s population growth was larger than expected, allowing it to keep all 12 of its House seats. That makes the job of redrawing district lines somewhat easier than a decade ago, when the state lost a seat.
Politics plays a major role in the process, with a number of competing factors outside the constitutional requirements — Democrats’ priorities versus Republicans’ goals and individual representatives’ efforts to keep their seats, among them — all part of the recipe that creates the final map. Candidates will run in the new districts next year.
At stake is political control of the state’s dozen districts, which could impact whether Democrats keep control of the House after the 2022 elections. Currently, Democrats hold 10 of the 12 seats in New Jersey. In the House of Representatives, Democrats hold a nine-vote edge over Republicans, and the party whose president is in power typically loses seats during the midterm elections.
As redistricting gets underway, here’s a look at the key points of the process.
Who draws the new map?
The New Jersey Redistricting Commission starts off as a 12-member body. It is separate from the New Jersey Apportionment Commission, which is charged with redrawing state legislative district boundaries once a decade. Democratic and Republican leaders each choose six members. The president of the Senate, speaker of the Assembly, minority leaders of the Senate and Assembly and chairs of the two major parties each gets to choose two members.
The Democrats named their members earlier last week: The deadline was June 15. Janice Fuller, former chief of staff to Rep. Frank Pallone (D-6th), will chair the delegation. Prior to ending his term as chair of the state Democratic Party, John Currie named Fuller and Stephanie Lagos, chief of staff to first lady Tammy Murphy, to the commission. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) appointed former Camden Mayor Dana Redd and Jeff Nash, a Camden County commissioner. Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) chose Iris Michelle Delgado, executive director of the Middlesex County Democratic Organization and Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth).
Republicans named their members last month. Outgoing state GOP Chair Michael Lavery chose Doug Steinhardt, a lawyer and the former state Republican chair who flirted with running for governor this year, and Lynda Pagliughi, vice chair of the state GOP. Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean (R-Union), who is leaving the Senate this year and widely believed to be planning another congressional bid, chose Mark LoGrippo, a councilman in Kean’s hometown of Westfield, and Jeanne Dovgala Ashmore, who worked in the Christie administration. Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick (R-Union), who is seeking to replace Kean in the Senate, appointed Mark Duffy, executive director of the Assembly Republicans and Michele Albano, fundraising coordinator with Bramnick’s Assembly Republican Victory leadership PAC.
The 13th member, who will serve as the chair, is to be chosen by both delegations by July 15. If they can’t agree on a choice, they send their top two choices to the state Supreme Court, which is charged with choosing the more qualified of the two by majority vote no later than Aug. 10. This person must be a resident of the state for at least the past five years and cannot have held either public or political party office during that time.
What does the commission do?
The Redistricting Commission redraws only congressional district boundary lines, based on census data the state has yet to receive.
There are fewer written rules for the composition of congressional districts than for legislative districts. The process is mostly driven by the U.S. Voting Rights Act and case law.
First, the districts must have essentially the same populations. The census count of the state population at 9.29 million means each district should roughly contain about 774,000 residents. According to the 2019 Census American Community Survey estimates, the southernmost 2nd District currently represented by Republican Jeff Van Drew had the smallest population and would have to expand the most if the actual counts confirm that.
Under the Voting Rights Act, if there is the opportunity to draw a district to provide minority representation, or maintain it, that must be done. If the racial and ethnic populations from the 2019 estimates hold, three districts currently have either a majority or plurality of Black or Hispanic residents. Two of those districts, the 8th and 10th concentrated in and around Newark and Jersey City, currently have minority representation: Democrat Albio Sires in the 8th and Donald Payne Jr. in the 10th. The third, the 9th that spans parts of Bergen and Passaic counties, is represented by Democrat Bill Pascrell and was 40% Latino in 2019.
The Census Bureau will provide detailed population counts by racial and ethnic breakdowns, voting age and housing occupancy down to the block level — roughly a city block in urban areas, larger and more irregular in the suburbs and rural areas. This enables the commission to refine districts based on the main criteria and potentially split municipalities into two congressional districts. Currently 15 municipalities are divided.
Members of the public can submit their own proposals for district boundaries to the commission, which is required to consider them. A number of online programs allow people to draw their own maps and it is likely that several will make their own submissions to the commission.
While commission members could work together or with the chairman on a consensus map, it is more likely for each party to craft its own map, with the chairman choosing one and voting with that delegation to approve the new boundaries.
A decade ago, the chairman was John Farmer Jr., now the director of the Rutgers University Eagleton Institute of Politics. He voted with the GOP on a map that shrank the Democrats’ 7-6 House lead to an even split between the two parties in 2012, but the Republicans lost support in 2016 and again in 2018.
What’s the timeline?
According to the state Constitution, the commission must hold an organizational meeting by Sept. 8. Then it sets its schedule of other meetings, including many that can be held behind closed doors.
The commission is required to hold three public hearings in different parts of the state. It can choose to hold more. That schedule will be set after the commission organizes.
In addition to the three public hearings, the only other public meeting the commission must hold is the one at which the members vote on a map.
The Census Bureau expects to provide states with the data they need to draw boundaries in August or September. The final map must be approved by Jan. 18.