Redistricting that reflects NJ’s racial and ethnic makeup

COLLEEN O'DEA, SENIOR WRITER AND PROJECTS EDITOR | DECEMBER 8, 2021 

NJ Spotlight News

Map of Trenton from 1905.

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A coalition comprising New Jersey’s racial, ethnic and social justice organizations is the first to publicly propose a new map of congressional districts, one they say gives the state’s growing racial and ethnic groups greater power and recognizes other communities with common interests, including Jersey Shore towns and college students.

But it is unclear whether the map that seeks to make half of the state’s dozen districts majority-minority districts will receive serious consideration from the New Jersey Redistricting Commission. (A majority-minority district is one where a majority of residents are members of a single racial or ethnic minority or a combination of non-white groups.)

The commission is tasked with redrawing the boundaries of the state’s 12 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives to reflect population shifts over the past decade. According to the 2020 U.S. Census count, New Jersey’s population rose by 5.7% to nearly 9.3 million over the past decade, with most of that in urban areas and in and around Lakewood in Ocean County. Typically, the commission’s six Democratic members and six Republican members each propose a map that favors their party and the 13 member chooses one map or the other.

One indication that this year could be different: the Princeton Gerrymandering Project, a national advocate for creating what it says are fairer districts through redistricting reform, is advising the tie-breaking chairs of both the congressional and legislative commissions.

“The team is pleased to assist these leaders in their roles, by providing technical support and data analysis,” according to a statement on the project’s website.

By law, the commission has until Jan. 18 to certify district lines. House incumbents — 10 Democrats and two Republicans — and challengers will run in the new districts next year.

Chaired by former Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, the commission is wrapping up a series of public hearings, during which it took testimony mostly from citizens. At the moment, its final hearing is planned to be held virtually Dec. 9 at 6 p.m. as a continuation of a session it began Monday night. It was at an in-person Sunday meeting in Newark that the group of 18 diverse organizations presented what they are calling a “racial equity” map to the commission.

The map keeps some districts relatively stable, including the northernmost 5th District and central Jersey’s 7th, which is seen as a candidate to be redrawn given it was long Republican but won by Democrat Tom Malinowski in 2018 and had the closest contested election two years ago. The proposed map significantly realigns other districts, including the southernmost 1st and 2nd and the 11th, which would extend all the way to Jersey City and the Hudson River in Bergen County.

“We’re so excited about this map,” said Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute of Social Justice, one of the members of the Racial Equity Map Coalition proposing the new district lines. “All of our partners came together and listened to the community, listened to the testimony … and tried to come up with a map that actually best represents New Jersey and our diversity.”

The group’s goal was creating districts with a majority of residents of one racial minority or of several diverse groups, given Hispanics and Asians, in particular, made up nearly all of the additional 497,000 New Jerseyans counted in the state since 2010. The number of people identifying as Latino rose by almost 29%, while the ranks of Asians rose by 31%, the data shows. Meanwhile, the percentage of non-Hispanic whites declined by almost 8%, although whites retained a bare majority at 52% in 2020. More than two of every 10 New Jerseyans were Hispanic and one in 10 were Asian.

When drawn in 2010, the current map included only three districts with diverse racial or ethnic majorities despite the fact that state’s population was 40% minority, Patel said. Those districts included one majority Black, the 10th, one majority Hispanic, the 8th, and a majority-minority district in the 9th. Since then, diverse population growth created two more minority-majority districts in the 6th and 12th.

The group’s map seeks to maintain those and add the 11th by extending it down into Dover, which is a Hispanic majority town and eastward into part of Jersey City and up into Fort Lee in Bergen County, both of which have sizeable Asian populations.

“It is clear that AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) representation in New Jersey does not reflect our population currently, and the most recent census demonstrates that AAPIs are the fastest growing population in the state,” said Kiran Gill, executive director of the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund. “The racial equity map recognizes the growth of the AAPI population centers across the state and it creates significant AAPI districts in New Jersey 6 and New Jersey 11, both of which have over 20% AAPI population … The racial-equity map reflects the growing political power of the AAPI community. We’re proud to see that the AAPI voice and community needs are represented in this.”

While allowing for greater representation of Asians and Hispanics was the group’s primary goal, it also considered other “communities of interest” in drawing its districts. For instance, its version of the southernmost 2nd District extends further up the Jersey Shore almost to the northern tip of Ocean County because Shore communities share similar needs. And it remapped the 12th District, based in Trenton, to have a college-centric focus, including Princeton, Rutgers and Rider universities and the College of New Jersey.

Philip Hensley of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey said the “map is not a gerrymander favoring either party” and generally maintains the competitiveness between the parties in a number of districts.

Still, it does keep much of the unique shapes of the 6th and 8th districts and turns the 11th into something resembling an anteater sucking up a meal as it zigzags from Morris County through parts of Essex, Union, Hudson and Bergen counties. Some of these can’t be helped, Patel said, due to the need to keep district populations roughly equivalent and meet other requirements, including that districts do not dilute minority voting strength.

“There’s no right answer at the front of a box,” she said. “What it is, is about balancing a number of criteria some legally required and coming up with a map that best represents the criteria you prioritize.”

Regardless of whether the commission accepts any of this map, it will have to make some significant changes in district boundary lines due to growth patterns. While no New Jersey congressional district lost population, some grew faster than others: The 10th added nearly a third more people, while population in the 2nd District increased by less than 6%.

The commission has held nine of 10 hearings it pledged to hold. Members of the Racial Equity Map Coalition, including  the Latino Action Network, Faith in New Jersey and NAACP State Conference, are hoping the commission will hold a final hearing on whatever map or maps are proposed so the public can comment.

“We don’t know when the commission will deliver their map. We don’t know if their districts will center our communities of interest and communities of color in the same way,” said Amy Torres of the New Jersey Alliance for Immigrant Justice, who urged activists supporting the coalition’s map to stay involved in the process. “We don’t know if, once that map is released, whether the public will have enough time to react and weigh in. So we’re urging you to stand with us.”

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published this page in News and Politics 2021-12-08 03:21:16 -0800