Democrats will soon announce redistricting picks, but all else is uncertain

11/11/2020

Politico

The maps that the bipartisan commission produce play a major role in determining which party controls the Legislature as well as their margins. 

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There’s a lot of uncertainty around how New Jersey will redraw its state legislative district boundaries, but this much is clear: Democrats will make their appointments to the bipartisan commission within the next five days.

“We still plan to have an appointment before then,” said Democratic State Chair John Currie, an ally of Gov. Phil Murphy who makes the picks. Republicans made their picks to the redistricting commission in April.

Pretty much everything else about the process — including whether it’s delayed by a year and current state legislative districts kept in place for two more years — is up in the air.

The decennial redistricting process is arguably the most important political fight the two parties engage in, as the maps they produce play a major role in determining which party controls the Legislature as well as their margins. In the early spring of years ending in 1, as in 2021, the process dominates New Jersey politics.

But voters approved a Democratic-backed constitutional amendment last Tuesday that would delay the redistricting process, currently scheduled for the early spring of next year, until 2022 if the block-level Census data they need to redraw districts arrives after Feb. 15. That would mean the state legislative districts drawn in 2011, which have helped Democrats bolster their majorities in the Senate and Assembly, would remain in effect until the 2023 election. (The congressional redistricting process, which takes place at the end of 2021, will not be affected).

It’s more likely than not that the data will arrive after Feb. 15, according to a redistricting expert. But the constitutional amendment did not change the date that appointments to the bipartisan redistricting commission are due: This coming Sunday.

The redistricting commission is made up of five Democrats and five Republicans each appointed by their party's state chairs. When they inevitably deadlock on a new map, state Supreme Court Chief Justice Stuart Rabner picks an 11th tie-breaking member. In 2011, Rabner merely formalized a tiebreaker pick that both parties agreed on: the late Rutgers Professor Alan Rosenthal.

The redistricting picks could prove to be controversial in New Jersey’s faction-riven Democratic Party. A power-sharing arrangement on those picks was central to a compromise late last year that kept Currie in power as state chair after Essex County Democratic Chair LeRoy Jones challenged him with the backing of South Jersey Democratic power broker George Norcross. As part of the deal to keep the post until Jones succeeds him in mid-2021, Currie agreed to give both Senate President Steve Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin a redistricting pick. Sweeney requested that Currie appoint him to the commission in April.

In a phone interview, Currie would not say whether he would agree to put Sweeney on the commission. If he doesn’t, New Jersey’s Democratic factions — whose fighting was largely put on hold ahead of the 2020 election — will likely once again engage in intense fighting. But Democratic insiders expressed doubt that Murphy allies like Currie would seek to inflame tension with Sweeney and his allies as Murphy prepares for reelection.

Princeton University neuroscience professor Sam Wang, who leads the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, believes the actual process of redrawing the redistricting lines will likely be delayed until 2022. Even if the Trump administration seeks to rush the delivery of the data to New Jersey, he doesn’t think it will be possible before he leaves office on Jan. 20. And the incoming Biden administration will almost certainly have no inclination to rush it.

“To push it out before Jan. 20,, it’s basically out of reach,” Wang said. “No matter what people may want in the Trump administration, the release of data is in the hands of career Census professionals, and there’s very little possibility they’ll be able to push data out sooner.”

But Wang doesn’t think the Trump administration has a reason to push the data out sooner. “I don’t think the Trump administration has a dog in this fight,” he said.

Some Democrats are less certain, believing the Trump administration may be willing to push out data earlier if they believe it will help Republicans or hurt Democrats.

“It would not be surprising if the president, in an unprecedented maneuver, tried to rush an incomplete and inaccurate Census to New Jersey prior to leaving office," said BIll Castner, an attorney who served as the top lawyer for Democrats during redistricting in 2011. "If so, I would almost certainly expect an immediate challenge over whether such a Census count is legitimate and whether Governor Murphy is even obligated to receive such a count."

Added Castner: "The problem is that the current Census became politicized, lacked quality checks, and severely undercounted communities of color in New Jersey and across the nation. Last Tuesday shows New Jerseyans want and deserve a redistricting process based on a credible and accurate Census — not a politically-driven parting shot to New Jersey from the current Administration.”

Republicans, academics like Wang and some progressive groups opposed the constitutional amendment. They argued, among other things, that delaying the new map by two years disenfranchises New Jersey’s fast-growing Hispanic and Asian populations, who would be represented based on their 2011 population figures for two more years.

Essex County GOP Chair Al Barlas, who chairs the Republicans’ redistricting team, said that during a redistricting virtual event sponsored by the non-partisan National Council of State Legislatures, Census officials told the audience that New Jersey’s redistricting data could be sent on Feb. 18 — three days after the constitutionally mandated deadline. But he said it was far from certain.

Republicans are considering a lawsuit to challenge the redistricting delay, adding another layer of uncertainty.

“That’s for the lawyers to determine,” Barlas said when asked if Republicans will file suit. “As a non-lawyer, there’s [questions about] one-person one-vote [and] equal protection in potentially having 12-year districts and eight-year districts, and ... the kind of downstream effects of redistricting.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2020-11-11 02:58:39 -0800