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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.

Hate is thriving in New Jersey | Opinion

by Patrick Murray

This column originally appeared as an Op-Ed in the Star-Ledger on March 28, 2021.

New Jersey easily ranks as one of the most racially and culturally diverse states in the country. In fact, nearly one in four residents were born outside the United States. This diversity brings a vitality to life in the Garden State that can be found in few other places. Unfortunately, it brings a lot of hate, as well.

Recent reports from the state Attorney General and the Anti-Defamation League show a huge increase in the number of bias crimes and the spread of white supremacist propaganda over the past few years. While this trend has been on the rise nationally, the ADL report puts New Jersey near the top of the list for the spread of hate speech. Moreover, the Southern Poverty Law Center keeps tabs on 16 different hate groups active in the state.

The recent growth of hate activity in New Jersey has been stunning, particularly since it erased what had been a steady decline from 876 bias incidents in 2008 to a low of 367 in 2015. That number slowly started to climb in 2016, reaching 569 incidents in 2018. It then skyrocketed to 994 in 2019 and to 1441 last year.

A recent Monmouth University Poll found that more than six in 10 Americans view white nationalism as a problem for the country, with nearly half seeing it as a big problem. And New Jersey is right at the center of it.

There is no question we need to confront these dangerous ideologies head-on. But we also need to address the larger environment that gives hate groups the air to thrive. We need to find ways to starve them of that oxygen.

In any society — be it the United States, Great Britain, or Myanmar — a certain, and not insignificant, percentage of the population is willing to submit to authoritarian leadership in times of instability. This trait always lurks beneath the surface. At the same time, a segment of the public is prone to believe that one group — their group — is inherently better than others.

The intersection of these two traits — authoritarianism and intolerance — is the root of hate activity’s rise today. Stemming the rise of authoritarianism is a key component in reducing white nationalist activity. This question is what can we do about it.

The American political culture is unique among established democracies in that our “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” philosophy leads to a rather large dose of skepticism about the role of government. New Jerseyans have this characteristic in abundance. The problem is when healthy skepticism turns to an unhealthy fetish that government itself is fundamentally malicious.

That is where we stand today. A sizable segment of the public has replaced any prior trust in our political system with an unqualified faith in charismatic authoritarian leadership. The irony here is that many of these people believe that their support of insurrectionist behavior is actually “defending the Constitution.”

We need a civic revival in this country. An understanding that the longevity of our nation is not based on fealty to a particular leader or ideology but on a consensus of public trust in our political processes and institutions. You may not always get the outcome you desire, but you believe that your side will get a fair hearing.

This is not to say we can ignore the very real and very deep inequities that have been brought to the surface in recent years. But in terms of reducing hate activity, shrinking the public appetite for authoritarianism that props up this societal ill should be an important part of the broader strategy.

One of the most disturbing findings in the recent reports on hate activity is its prevalence in New Jersey’s college and university towns. These groups are recruiting young people who lack an appreciation for the norms that maintain stability in our society.

Tackling the idea that authoritarianism is an acceptable governing philosophy requires a concerted effort starting as early as possible. The New Jersey Assembly is currently poised to consider Laura Wooten’s Law, named after the nation’s longest-serving poll worker. This bill, which mandates civics education in middle school and creates a civics curriculum for required high school history courses, is an important first step.

This step will not eradicate hate crime in New Jersey, but it will begin to starve this evil of the oxygen it needs to spread.

‘Unprecedented Times’? We’ve Seen This Stuff Before

by Jimmy Watson, Monmouth University Polling Institute Intern

A common adage in the study of history is “The Past is Prologue.” While overused in certain areas, the phrase holds up well when viewing many of the issues facing society today. Professors, teachers, and even media members have given a nod to this phrase. Yet 2020 seems to have been the year that the American public has forgotten it. COVID-19, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and Biden vs. Trump have prompted terms like “unprecedented” and “new normal.” While the events of 2020 thus far have certainly been dramatic in many respects, they are, in actuality, a sobering reminder that America has been through similar situations. In 1918, the country grappled with a widespread pandemic while fighting World War I. In 1968, another pandemic presented itself, social unrest spread like wildfire, and a major presidential election took place in November. The events of 2020, while termed “unprecedented,” are sadly similar in scope, composition and influence to what is now in history books.

As WWI raged on in Europe, 1918 gave Woodrow Wilson the most trying year of his presidency. An invisible enemy arrived now known as the Spanish Flu. Claiming the lives of 675,000 people in the United States alone, the pandemic raged on as the November midterm elections took place. Quarantines were put into effect, mask mandates angered people, and large gatherings were prohibited. The election looked a lot different. The San Francisco Chronicle called it, “the first masked ballot ever known in the history of America.” The country was forced to adapt in a time of global turmoil.

1918 was 102 years ago. 102 years ago, people were afraid to go outside, to the store, or to cast a vote. People were forced to wear masks and socially distance. In the “unprecedented times” of 2020, America has seen similar effects with COVID-19. People have been quarantined and mask mandates have become strict protocols across much of the country. 102 years ago, people still voted and American democracy continued as it had in years prior. Society did not dwell on its strife, but it moved on to rebound in the next decade. The unfortunate truth is that America has had to relive similar events in 2020 with a new pandemic. But let us not forget that we have been through this all before, and we came out the other side to fight on into the next decade.

1968 proved to be another year filled with unrest and uncertainty. The year brought a historic presidential race between Richard Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, and George Wallace. It also brought the assassinations of two monumental Civil Rights advocates in Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Violence swept the nation amid the deaths of two giants in the push for African American equality. Places like Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles saw rioting, looting and protests. A new flu pandemic arose taking the lives of 100,000 Americans. While there were nowhere near the same amount of protocols put in place as in 1918, the pandemic added more fuel to the proverbial fire that was spreading across the country. In November there was to be a general election during one of the most provocative and chaotic years since the end of World War II.

1968 was 52 years ago. 52 years ago, there was looting and rioting in the streets. For all intents and purposes, people of color had still not achieved true equality. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy marked the end of one of the most prominent decades in the push for equal rights and the beginning of some of the most violent protests that the decade had seen. In the midst of the chaos, third party candidate George Wallace was quoted as saying, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” In 2020, in the wake of the death of George Floyd, America has seen little change. Looting and rioting have flooded the airwaves. As people ran to the streets to stand for social justice, Twitter saw President Trump use the same words as George Wallace did 52 years ago. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The unfortunate truth is that America is reliving history once again. 1968 and 2020 look increasingly similar. 1968 was a major moment that brought equality to the forefront of discussion. 2020 might reinvigorate a generation to do the same. The election is said by many to be a choke point for change just as 1968 was. America will soon find out whether or not that is the case.

2020 has certainly been a chaotic year. There has been a global pandemic like the one in 1918. There has been social and racial unrest just like there was in 1968. Just because these times might not be as “unprecedented” as they may seem does not make this year’s November election any less historic, important, or scary. However, it is worthwhile to understand where America has been and how an understanding of past experiences can help shape decisions that may impact the future. Past is prologue. However, the prologue does not necessarily determine the rest of the story in the remaining pages. It is the actions that are taken within a particular narrative that can influence the final pages. Let this tumultuous year not just be another prologue. Allow for history to instruct rather than discourage. Allow it to put things in perspective and be a force that keeps America moving forward.