After the U.S. Census Bureau announced it needs more time to complete its once-in-a-decade count due to the coronavirus, New Jersey Democratic legislators are looking to delay the drawing of new legislative districts if census data is not available, a plan that Republicans in the state are objecting to.
Following each census, new congressional and state legislative maps are drawn up based upon data collected during the count to ensure each district is about the same size and the population is represented accurately.
Currently, New Jersey’s redistricting would be completed by the November 2021 general election, when all seats in the Assembly and Senate are on the ballot.
Delayed Until 2023
Amid concerns of a potential undercount due to COVID-19, legislation (SCR122/ACR188) was introduced July 7 into the Assembly and Senate that would reschedule redistricting to 2023 if census data was delayed.
The measure would seek voter approval for the temporary extension and keep the current legislative district maps in place for an additional two-year-term.
In order to move forward, the measure must be passed by the state Legislature no later than Aug. 3 with three-fifths of the members of each house in favor before it goes before voters this November.
Alternative Course Of Action
In a joint statement issued, bill sponsor Assemblyman John McKeon (D-27), said, “This pandemic is creating an unforeseeable impact on the timeframe needed to get a complete and accurate census count. While we hope the federal government will be able to get it done, we recognize the critical importance of having an alternative course of action should delays come to pass.”
McKeon added: “An undercount could not only prove detrimental to the way federal funding gets apportioned over the next decade, but would largely affect the way our communities are represented through all levels of government.”
Responses to census questions on background and residence are used to determine population, how citizens are represented, how legislative districts are drawn and where more than $45 billion in federal funding to New Jersey will go. The federal aid is distributed for items like schools, roads, healthcare, housing and emergency services.
Need To Be Prepared
In 2010, 67.6% of New Jersey responded to the Census, which fell below the national rate of 74%. As a result, the state lost a seat in the House of Representatives. Redistricting data was originally slated to be available to states by the end of March 2021, but the Census Bureau recently said it could be delayed to July 2021.
By law, New Jersey must adopt new legislative maps within 60 days of receiving the data.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-22) said, “We shouldn’t be surprised if the delay is even longer. That will make it all but impossible to get the accurate information needed to draw legislative districts that are fair and accurate.”
In a July 7 press release, Scutari said, “We need to be prepared to protect against the severe disruptions that would occur if the data isn’t available in time.”
New Jersey and Virginia are the only two states in the country that will hold legislative elections next year and the delay will create “a severe scheduling squeeze with damaging consequences,” Scutari said.
Assembly member Angelica Jimenez (D-32), a co-sponsor of the bill, said the measure “would protect against the very real possibility that we would not be able to meet our constitutional responsibility to adopt a new legislative map in time,”
According to Jimenez, the legislation aims to clear up “any confusion about the process if a court is forced to get involved at the last minute.”
“It would also prevent any group from receiving an unfair advantage from moving dates for elections,” she said.
Besides determining what political party is in power, census data plays a role in whether communities of color and hard-to-count populations have a voice.
Accurate Count Crucial
“Obtaining an accurate census count is essential, and the Census Bureau must do everything it can to ensure hard-to-count populations are recorded accurately, regardless of how long that may take,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-35).
“Accurate data is critical. Census data is used to create new districts for federal, state and many local elections to ensure citizens have equal representation in their various levels of government,” he said.
Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) said the Census Bureau needs to have the necessary time “to complete as accurate count as possible, regardless of the status of the COVID-19 pandemic and free of political pressure from states to submit data before it is ready.”
‘A Power Grab’
Some GOP leaders have already rejected the proposal, with Republican state Chairman Doug Steinhardt calling it “a desperate and greedy power grab” by Democrats.
“New Jerseyans deserve a map that represents results, not protects incumbents, but instead Democrats are exploiting a crisis to preserve their power, and this failed map for another two years,’ he said.
Senate Republican Leader Tom Kean (R-21) said in a statement,“This isn’t the first time Democrats have attempted to disenfranchise New Jersey voters. I don’t think anybody is surprised by this. This has become a pattern now as they hide behind cover and attempt to manipulate elections to their advantage.”
“The partisan gerrymandering strategy is different, but the goal is the same. They want a lock on legislative dominance in Trenton,” said Kean, who is the Republican challenger in the 7th Congressional District. “Using the rationale that the pandemic is interfering with census-information gathering, this bill is an effort to steamroll the State Constitution to ensure Democrat outcomes for incumbent legislators.”