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New Census, Same Old Redistricting

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on May 2, 2021.

The release of a new decennial census usually means that redistricting cannot be far behind.  But this year will be different for New Jersey.

The first round of numbers released this past week held some unexpectedly welcome news for the state. We gained more residents over the past ten years than annual survey-based estimates had indicated. Our population tops 9 million for the first time!

While we now know we will hold onto our 12 Congressional seats, we don’t know what needs to be done to adjust those districts to ensure each one has an equal number of people. And perhaps even more importantly, we also lack the data necessary to redraw the state’s 40 legislative districts so they are substantially equal.

That’s because we are still a few months away from receiving the population data that gives precinct-level detail of population shifts. And that won’t arrive until August or September – about 6 months later than New Jersey usually receives it.

The pandemic-related delay in completing the national census has now delayed states getting the data they need for redrawing congressional and legislative lines. This isn’t a problem for most states. Some have statutory deadlines that they will be pressed to meet, but all states should have enough time to create new maps in time for their upcoming state and federal elections in 2022.  All states, that is, except two.

New Jersey and Virginia are the only states in the nation that hold legislative elections the year after the U.S. Census is taken. The delay in that count means neither state will have a new map in time for this fall’s contests.

New Jersey was prepared for this. Last year, voters passed a constitutional amendment that postpones legislative apportionment if the census data is not received by mid-February. Our bipartisan commission will have until March 2022 to create the new map, which will go into effect with the 2023 elections for state Senate and General Assembly. Our 2011 map gets to stay in play for an extra inning.

Pity poor Virginia, though. They do not have any statutory direction on what happens when census data is received late in the game. Like, New Jersey, they won’t have a new legislative map ready for November. But rather than being able to just delay its implementation until the next regularly scheduled election, the courts could force the state to hold a special election with the new map in 2022. That would mean their House of Delegates would be on the ballot 3 years in a row.  It’s happened before. Virginia had to hold successive elections in 1981, 1982, and 1983 because of redistricting problems.

Why didn’t Virginia have the foresight New Jersey did? Well, it may be because they were too busy implementing real reforms. While Garden State voters inserted some new deadlines in our state constitution, those in the Old Dominion actually had to decide on a significant change to their entire redistricting process.

Virginia voters last November approved a measure that took the process of drawing new district maps out of the hands of the legislature and assigned it to a commission made up of both legislators and citizens. The legislature still gets an up or down vote on the plan and the ability to boot the final decision to the state’s Supreme Court, but it cannot actively create or alter the map.

One potential problem with the Virginia process this year is the clock that starts ticking when the state receives detailed census data. Based on when that is expected to arrive now, it is probable that a special session of the legislature will be convened right before the November election.  Legislators will have to vote on a new map that will directly impact own political futures. In other words, the new map has the potential for becoming a campaign issue.

New Jersey may have been forward thinking on the timing of this year’s census, but we continue to fall behind in terms of real redistricting reform. We were one of the first states to put legislative apportionment in the hands of a commission over 50 years ago. Now, other states have surpassed us in reform efforts by creating commissions with even more independence as well as providing principles to follow when creating new district maps to reflect ever-changing communities of interest.

In the end, our redistricting process still boils down to two partisan teams strategizing on how to earn the favor of a single tie-breaking vote. Kudos to New Jersey for avoiding the uncertainty of a pandemic-delayed census. But we still have a lot of work to do get back in vanguard of best redistricting practices.