NJ redistricting proposal could delay minority representation

Monday morning members of the Assembly Judiciary Committee held a meeting via Zoom to discuss a proposed constitutional amendment that would keep current district lines in place until the 2023 election, for a total of 12 years, instead of the 10 now mandated in the constitution.

Assemblyman John McKeon, the sponsor of bill ACR188, says due to the uncertainty of COVID-19, he’s concerned the state won’t have the most up-to-date census data, which is why he proposed the amendment.

“If we’re concerned about a census undercount in these communities of color, we should also be concerned with how delaying the drawing and implementation of a new redistrict map is going to also impact these same communities of color,” said Helen Kioukis, program associate for the New Jersey League of Women Voters.

Some groups argue that the amendment could disproportionately affect minority communities for decades, especially those located in a cluster of counties in northern New Jersey.

“Hispanic and Asian populations have gone up by 400,000, that’s about as many people as two whole Assembly or Senate districts. Most of that growth is a clusters in northern county around New York City — Bergen, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Passaic, Somerset and Union,” said Sam Wang, director of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

Wang says the longer redistricting is put off, the longer it takes to increase diversity within districts.

“ACR188, as far as we can tell at Princeton, doesn’t do anything to rectify an undercount. The other thing I want to say is soft of an obscure technical point, which is the power of drawing district lines has more effect on representation than even the worst undercount,” Wang said.

Henal Patel, director of the Democracy and Justice Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, also opposes the bill. Patel says she might have supported the bill it the revised timeline were in effect only next year, but the bill would make the change permanent. That means every year following the census, if counts are not received by Feb. 15, new districts will not be put in place until the year ending with a 3.

“Redistricting is foundational to our democracy. It is about representation. It is about who gets represented. It’s about people being able to elect representatives of their choosing and being able to do so as a community where they have shared interests. And it’s about people of color, under the voting rights, being able to do so that they can elect people who will represent them best,” she said.

Patel says existing maps also have to do with political power.

“Right off the bat, existing maps are always beneficial to incumbents, right? They already know what the map is; they don’t have to worry about any changes. This is where they’ve been running for 10 years not having any changes in their district, so this helps them,” Patel said.

Both legislative houses need to move quickly to approve the measure with 60% majority votes by Aug. 3 — the deadline for placing a question on the November ballot.