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Citing census delay, New Jersey looks to push legislative redistricting to 2023

Population data not expected until a month after 2021 primary

Pandemic-related census delays have already caused political fallout in one state, with New Jersey’s legislature kicking off the process to delay its legislative redistricting process from 2021 to 2023.

An altered schedule has led the Census Bureau to ask Congress for an extension that could result in delivering the data needed to draw state legislative maps as late as next July, about a month after New Jersey’s planned primary date.

On Thursday, the state Assembly’s Judiciary Committee voted 4-2 to advance a measure that would delay its mapmaking process to 2023, with Democrats arguing that would give the state’s normal redistricting process enough time to come up with a fair map for legislative seats. 

The measure’s sponsor, Democratic Assemblyman John McKeon, argued that all of the state’s options are “bad for democracy,” and would stifle public input. Without a change, he argued the current timeframe would result in a 2021 primary less than two weeks before the general legislative election.

“I’m sure all of you would agree that that would be chaos. Not palatable for the democratic process, and unfortunately this is just one other thing that’s a fallout from life that’s no longer usual. It’s only from COVID,” McKeon said.

In addition to New Jersey, Virginia also has state elections next year. Virginia’s legislature is not currently in session, but several news outlets have reported state leaders promised to hold a special session sometime this summer.

In prior cycles, both states have delayed their primaries — in 2011, Virginia postponed its June primary to August and in 2001, New Jersey held its primary several weeks late in June. But New Jersey Democrats argued a delay would not be enough this time. 

McKeon’s resolution would have New Jersey finalize legislative maps in 2022 for use in 2023 legislative elections. Thursday’s vote set the measure on the path for a public hearing later this month and a potential vote next month to place it on the ballot in November.

The process for drawing New Jersey’s congressional districts would not be altered by the amendment.

In addition to the delay of mapmaking data, the Census Bureau’s altered schedule would postpone the delivery of congressional apportionment data by four months to April 2021. The agency requested Congress change the law to allow for the deadline extension, which has passed the House as part of a broader coronavirus response package.

Other states also will have to deal with constitutional issues because of the delays, a concern raised by the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than two dozen states have constitutional deadlines that would be difficult or impossible to meet with the delay, the group said in a May letter to the Census Bureau.

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In New Jersey, Republicans including Assemblyman Chris DePhillips argued the bill passed Thursday went too far, pointing out that the resolution would amend the constitution permanently and trigger if the Census Bureau misses a February deadline — well in advance of the deadline in federal statute.

“I mean there are less significant and less onerous ways of dealing with census data that comes in a little bit late, and there’s no proof here that the census data will come in late this year, or this cycle,” DePhillips said.

Republicans argued that a constitutional amendment to form the state’s mapmaking commission early — including adding a tie-breaking member — would accelerate the process and remove the need for a two-year delay.

The measure also attracted criticism from members of the public, including Henal Patel, the director of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s Democracy and Justice Program. She argued the state has become increasingly diverse and relying on the 2011 maps until 2023 may violate the Voting Rights Act.

“It will exacerbate the cracks of structural racism in our foundation by using the existing outdated legislative maps which do not include the substantial growth of people of color in New Jersey since 2010, thereby diluting the political strength influence and power to which people of color and are entitled based on their composition of New Jersey’s population, as it exists right now,” Patel said.

Other groups including the League of Women Voters and Clean Water Action also criticized Democrats for not holding public hearings about the issue and bringing the bill to a vote late in the process for adding a measure to the ballot.