Democratic Legislators Offer Plan to Protect the Fairness & Accuracy of Legislative Redistricting from COVID Delays
TRENTON – To protect the fairness and accuracy of the census count during an unprecedented pandemic, Senator Nicholas Scutari, Assembly Democrats John McKeon, Angelica Jimenez, Benjie Wimberly, Yvonne Lopez, Britnee N. Timberlake and Tom Giblin introduced legislation in their respective Houses to prepare for a temporary extension of the redistricting process if the census is delayed.
Senator Scutari (D-Union), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, along with Assembly members McKeon (D-Essex, Morris), Jimenez (D-Bergen, Hudson), Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic), Lopez (D-Middlesex), Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic) and Giblin (D-Essex, Passaic) offered a plan to seek voter approval of a constitutional amendment that would reschedule legislative redistricting to 2023 if the census data is not available within the same time frame as it is customarily received every decade. The plan would keep the current legislative district maps in place for an additional two-year term until the 2023 elections.
“We already know that the census will be delayed at least until the end of July of next year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we shouldn’t be surprised if the delay is even longer,” said Senator Scutari. “That will make it all but impossible to get the accurate information needed to draw legislative districts that are fair and accurate. We need to be prepared to protect against the severe disruptions that would occur if the data isn’t available in time.”
The Census Bureau has asked to delay delivery of the data until the end of July, 2021. New Jersey is one of two states that hold legislative elections in 2021, creating “a severe scheduling squeeze with damaging consequences,” Senator Scutari said. New Jersey and Virginia typically receive census data months earlier. As the law currently stands, New Jersey must adopt new legislative maps within 60 days of receiving the census data.
“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,” said Assemblyman McKeon. “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.”
“This amendment 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,” said Assemblywoman Jimenez. “The amendment would also protect communities of color and other hard-to-count populations that stand to make significant gains due to increases in population over the last decade.”
The proposed amendment would have the commission delay the creation of the new districts if the Governor receives the federal census data after February 15, 2021. The commission would then adopt the new districts after the November general election, but not later than December 31, 2021.
“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 Wimberly. “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.”
“A lot is at stake in the 2020 census and we cannot afford for the process to be rushed. Hispanic communities in New Jersey, who have historically gone undercounted, stand to make momentous gains if we do this right,” said Assemblywoman Lopez. “As a state with an early election timeline, that does however mean we must look to delay the process of creating new legislative districts and we do that by putting it to the voters.”
The New Jersey Constitution requires an Apportionment Commission to create new legislative districts every ten years after the federal census is completed, but if the data is delayed, the new districts can’t be created in time for the November elections.
“Our communities of color must be protected by census accuracy,” said Assemblywoman Timberlake. “We must ensure the Census Bureau has the time necessary to complete as accurate a 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.”
“New Jersey requires census data to be submitted in a timely manner in order to create new districts, or election deadlines are missed,” said Assemblyman Giblin. “Even minor delays can create significant problems for our state having timely elections, but the Census Bureau is currently requesting at least a three-month delay and possibly longer to submit data to states.”
As a constitutional amendment, the measure must be passed by the Legislature no later than August 3, 2020 with three-fifths of the members of each house voting in favor before it goes to the voters in November of 2020.