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Atlantic County Republican Chairman Keith Davis. (Photo: Keith Davis).

Commission to redraw Atlantic County districts hits immediate impasse

Choice of redistricting tiebreaker may get punted to Supreme Court

By Joey Fox, January 27 2022 5:48 pm

The redistricting commission in charge of redrawing Atlantic County’s five county commission districts failed to find common ground at their first meeting today, with each party’s two commissioners agreeing to search for a fifth tiebreaking member. If the four cannot agree on a tiebreaker, they’ll ask Chief Justice Stuart Rabner to choose one, just as he did in 2011.

Democratic redistricting commissioner Michael Suleiman, the chair of the Atlantic County Democratic Party, began the meeting by moving to declare an impasse, kickstarting the search process for a fifth member. But Republican commissioner Keith Davis, the county Republican chair, pushed back and said he hoped the four existing commissioners could agree on a map of least change that would not require outside intervention.

“I think it is very premature to declare an impasse with respect to our proceedings until we have the opportunity to talk about what our positions are,” Davis said. “Before we go down that step of having to prolong this process and trouble the chief justice to appoint a fifth member, it would behoove us to put our cards on the table so that we know where each party stands with respect to the map.” 

Based on population changes since 2010, the map only needs minor adjustments. Thanks to the growth of Egg Harbor Township, the 3rd district is overpopulated by around 6,000 people, while the 1st, 2nd, and 5th districts are all minorly underpopulated.

Davis argued that if the commission committed to fixing population disparities and leaving the rest of the map alone, the redistricting process could be finished efficiently. Suleiman disagreed, however, saying that a court-appointed tiebreaker would still be worthwhile – and given how Atlantic County redistricting has shaken out in previous cycles, he had good reason for doing so.

The current map of Atlantic County Commission districts, approved in 2011. (Photo: Atlantic County Commission).

In 2011, tiebreaker Dennis Braithwaite chose the Republican-proposed map, saying it did a better job of preserving minority communities and existing district lines. Those existing lines had themselves been drawn by Republican commissioners; in fact, Republicans have won every map-drawing contest in Atlantic County since 1981.

Republicans have dominated the county commission in the decade since Braithwaite made his decision, winning most of its four at-large seats as well as a majority of its five district-based seats. Democrats currently hold two of the commission’s nine seats, and just one of its district-based seats, even though President Joe Biden won the county by nearly seven points in 2020.

The biggest point of difference in the 2011 redistricting process, and what will likely be the most contentious issue this cycle as well, is the 1st district.

Under the current map, Atlantic City and Pleasantville, the two most Democratic parts in the county and its only minority-minority municipalities, are combined into one hyper-Democratic district that voted for President Joe Biden by an 82-17% margin. Republicans, as well as some Black Democrats, have historically argued that the two cities need to be combined to ensure minority representation on the commission.

But that decision means that the remaining four districts are both whiter and more Republican than they might otherwise be. And with the Hispanic population in Atlantic County growing, it’s no longer necessary to pack the two cities together for a majority-minority district.

The lone other district that Democrats have been able to seriously contest in recent years is the 3rd district, which covers parts of Egg Harbor and Hamilton Townships and voted for Biden by 10 points.

In 2020, Democrat Thelma Witherspoon appeared to hold the seat for her party by 286 votes against Republican Andrew Parker, but that election was invalidated after it was discovered that County Clerk Edward McGettigan had failed to mail the correct ballot to 554 voters. Parker and Witherspoon faced off again last year, and in a favorable political environment for South Jersey Republicans, Parker easily won 57-43%

The other three districts were all won by former President Donald Trump, and are generally regarded as safe for Republican commissioners.

The 2nd district, the commission’s median seat, voted for Trump by a miniscule 0.4-point margin, seven points to the right of the county overall – a sign that the current map is a modest Republican gerrymander. The Galloway-based 4th district was also close at Trump 50-48%, while the more rural 5th district gave Trump a 15-point margin.

Besides 1st district Commissioner Ernest Coursey, the one other Democrat on the commission is At-Large Commissioner Caren Fitzpatrick, who lost a race for State Assembly last year.

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