Murphy says census numbers not yet ‘official’

Redistricting work on hold until census ‘formally’ sends data to the state and state makes minor adjustments
Credit: (AP Photo/Matt Rourke; AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)
File photos: New Jersey State House (left) and US Capitol

The 2020 census redistricting data New Jersey received earlier this month gives the two bipartisan commissions charged with redrawing legislative and congressional district boundaries clear missions: to reshape districts around population growth that occurred over the last decade, which was almost exclusively in urban areas and their surrounding suburbs.

But while Democrats and Republicans are working behind the scenes to create maps favorable to their respective parties, it’s unlikely the public will get to see any real action for some time.

The U.S. Census Bureau says that the data is the official redistricting data. But the Murphy administration doesn’t see it that way and is waiting until sometime next month to make small adjustments to the numbers and send them to the commissions so they can officially start their work.

The bureau’s release of official data is not the last word for redistricting purposes, according to Alicia D’Alessandro, a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s office. In a letter to the Democratic and Republican chairs of the two commissions, New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way wrote that her office would provide them with the counts “no later than the seventh day after the Governor receives the Census 2020 data for New Jersey from the Census Bureau” by Sept. 30. State officials must make minor changes to the counts to satisfy laws Gov. Phil Murphy signed requiring that people incarcerated be counted at their home addresses, rather than where they are being held, for legislative and congressional redistricting.

But while the administration is not counting the Aug. 12 data as official, the bureau said that data “can be used by state legislatures to redistrict or redraw the boundaries of their congressional and state legislative districts.” The data it will be providing by Sept. 30 will be exactly the same as the numbers it posted almost three weeks ago, with the only difference being it will send this on DVDs, flash drives and in a more user-friendly format “to the official state recipients.”

Urgent, not urgent

There’s no immediate urgency, at least on the legislative side, though the longer it takes to craft a new congressional map the less time candidates will have to campaign and reach voters in the districts where they will be running.

But a number of organizations and at least some of those who will be doing the mapping are eager to get started.

“We’re kind of in a holding pattern,” said Al Barlas, who heads the GOP delegation on the legislative apportionment commission and chairs the Essex County Republican Committee. “We’re not sure we can start work before the November election because of the language in the constitutional amendment that was adopted … We’d at least like to have public hearings to start off. We want to have at least nine, the number we had last time.”

In past decades, the legislative apportionment committee scrambled to redraw the boundaries of the 40 districts immediately after the state received its census counts. Those numbers came in the spring after the survey was taken, and candidates had to run in primaries in the new districts based on those numbers mere months later. Because of delays in last year’s census largely caused by the coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers put on the ballot — and voters approved — a constitutional amendment to delay reconfiguring districts based on the new population counts until after the November election.

The New Jersey Institute of Social Justice and League of Women Voters of New Jersey recently wrote the legislative apportionment commission saying Aug. 12 was the trigger date for the body to start its work and urged that it begin public hearings to receive as much input as possible. The commission’s deadline for drafting a new legislative district map is March 1, 2022.

‘The very foundation of our democracy’

“The Commission is drawing new maps which will impact the lives of New Jersey residents for a decade,” the letter states. “This process is the very foundation of our democracy. Waiting an additional month would further limit the time the Commission would be able to deliberate, review the official census data, and, crucially, hear from New Jersey residents. Nobody knows New Jersey communities better than the people who live in them, and the more time the Commission has to hear from the people of New Jersey the better both the process and final maps will be.”

The congressional redistricting commission will draw districts for the state’s 12 members of the U.S. House of Representatives who will be back on the ballot next year. By law, that commission has until Jan. 18 to certify those district lines, but the GOP has been hammering at the most vulnerable Democrats and some prospective candidates  — including the already declared 7th District challenger state Sen. Tom Kean of Union County — are eager to know exactly where they will be running. The state Constitution requires the 13-member commission to at least hold its first meeting early in September – this year, the date is Wednesday, Sept. 8.

That commission is being chaired by former state Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace Jr., chosen earlier this month by a majority of the Supreme Court when the commission’s six Democrats and six Republicans could not agree to a chairman. The Democrats had nominated Wallace to be the 13th member. The Republicans had wanted former Superior Court Judge Marina Corodemus.

Under last year’s constitutional amendment, Chief Justice Stuart Rabner will appoint a tie-breaking 11th member to the legislative apportionment commission within a month after the governor receives the census data. Rabner has already received suggestions from the members of the commission, but when he will make his appointment is unclear, especially given the administration’s position that it still has not received the official data.

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