N.J. lawmakers mull postponing redistricting due to expected census delays

The 2020 census form. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

The 2020 census form. (Matt Rourke/AP Photo)

When the federal government conducts the census once a decade, states use the data to redraw their electoral maps, a process known as redistricting.

That will happen across the country next year, but delays in the door-to-door national survey because of the coronavirus pandemic could mean that the federal government releases the data later than it typically does, say June of next year instead of February.

For New Jersey, which holds its state legislative elections in off years, that delay could throw a wrench in the 2021 election cycle.

A proposed constitutional amendment backed by Democrats would delay state legislative redistricting in New Jersey for two years if there is a census delay and keep the current maps for next year’s legislative races. The proposal would not affect the redrawing of congressional districts ahead of races in 2022. That is done through a different process and would have less of an issue with a few months’ delay in receiving final numbers.

“This sets up a system that takes the chaos out of it,” said Assemblyman John McKeon, D-Morris, one of the sponsors.

Another legislator called it the “least bad of all the options.”

But opponents say the proposal unnecessarily enshrines a long-term fix for a short-term problem, and that using the old electoral map will disenfranchise communities of color that have grown across New Jersey in the last decade.

“Over the course of 10 years, people moved both into the state and out of the state as well as around the state,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the Institute for Social Justice.

“New Jersey today is not the New Jersey of 2010,” she added.

Republicans have also come out against delaying redistricting.

McKeon and other Democratic lawmakers suggested in a public hearing held Monday over Zoom that it would be untenable to receive the census data in June, redraw electoral maps and hold both a primary and a general election by November.

In 2001, the New Jersey primary was pushed back by a few weeks because of census delays, but was still held the same month.

The proposed constitutional amendment will need the support of a supermajority of the legislature to go on the November ballot for voter approval.

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