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Legislative redistricting proposal could shorten terms of Jersey City council

Unintended consequences of constitution amendment is turmoil in Jersey City

By David Wildstein, July 15 2020 3:06 pm

Municipal elections next year in Jersey City could muddy the waters for a proposed constitutional amendment to retain the 2011 legislative district map until 2023.

If Jersey City redraws their six wards to reflect the 2020 census in time for the 2021 city council elections, it could throw the legislative map that splits the city into districts drawn according to ward and election districts out of whack.

Two Hudson County legislative districts, the 31st and the 33rd, share parts of four Jersey City wards; Wards A and F are entirely in district 31.

If any voting districts in Jersey City are moved into a different legislative district, that could bolster claims of the current legislative map becoming invalid.  It seems unlikely that a court would approve redrawing the two Hudson districts for next year while leaving the other 38 as they were.

Fixing this issue through special legislation for Jersey City is complicated.

The legislature would need to pass a bill that enables Jersey City to change the terms of ward city council members from four years to something less than that.  Then the city council would need to enact that into a local ordinance.

A majority of the city council might need to agree to shorten their own terms as a way of helping legislators hold on to their current districts for an extra two years.

It’s unlikely – never say impossible in Hudson County — that local officeholders in Jersey City will be anxious to voluntarily agree to an abbreviated term and to run in an additional municipal election.

The risk for Jersey City is exposure to a federal voting rights lawsuit that overturns the old ward map and potentially allows a three-judge panel – many of them appointed by Donald Trump – to draw new ward lines.

When the 1982 congressional redistricting map was overturned two years later, a panel of federal judges picked the new map.  That left state and local political leaders without any input into a map that would affect them for the next eight years.

Bifurcating the terms of a Jersey City council member could cause local voters to oppose the referendum this November if the legislature places it on the ballot.

That potentially sets up a mid-term election for the winner of the 2021 Jersey City mayoral election.  Since 1961, when Jersey City changed to their current form of government, all nine city council seats – three at-large and six elected by ward – have been run concurrent with the election for mayor.

While the redrawing of wards occurs every decade, it only coincides with municipal elections every 20 years: 1981, 2001 and 2021, for example.  In 1991 and 2011, it was two years before new ward maps impacted local elections.  This won’t be a problem again until 2041.

This wasn’t a problem for Jersey City in 1981 and 2001 because municipal elections were held in May and the filing deadline preceded the certification of the 2000 census data. What’s different now is that Jersey City moved their municipal elections to November.

Jersey City’s population has increased from 262,075 after the 2010 Census to an estimated 247,597 in 2019.

If Jersey City doesn’t redraw wards for 2021, it means the 2010 census would essentially be in effect for 15 years until the next local elections are held in 2025.

There are no census estimates by ward, but voter registration can be used as an early indicator of population growth.

Ward E, which is the downtown area of Jersey City, has about 33,000 registered voters, while The Heights-based Ward D has around 21,000 voters.

In a city that currently has about 155,000 registered voters, Wards A and F have about 5,000 more voters than Ward B and about 7,000 more than Ward C.

The size of a Jersey City ward, based on the estimated population, is 43,679. Federal law allows a deviation of +/- 10% for wards; the state has traditionally preferred a +/-5 deviation, and federal courts have been known to follow guidelines of states with tighter deviation models.  The ideal size of a ward based on +/- 10% is 39,311 to 48,050.

There is little doubt that the current Downtown-based Ward E will need to shed some population.  That creates a potential obstacle for the incumbent councilman, James Solomon, who lives on the western side of his ward and could find himself redrawn out of his seat.

A 2001 court ruling waived the one-year residency requirement for legislative candidates only in a redistricting year, and it’s not immediately clear if a judge would extend the ruling to candidates for municipal office.

New ward maps are drawn by a five-member commission that includes the Hudson County Board of Elections – two Democrats and two Republicans – and the Jersey City Clerk as the tie-breaker.

Sean J. Gallagher was named municipal clerk by the city council earlier this year and he does not yet have tenure.

Gov. Phil Murphy might have a chance to run out the clock and force Jersey City to wait until 2025.

While the proposed constitutional amendment would be triggered if Murphy doesn’t receive certified U.S. Census data by February 15, 2021, the governor has three months to promulgate those numbers to counties and municipalities.  New wards must be drawn within 30 days of the governor filing them with the Secretary of State.

If Murphy delays the formality of filing the census numbers, he could open the door to a legal challenge to the disparate populations in Jersey City’s six wards.

The filing deadline to run in Jersey City’s November 2021 non-partisan municipal election is August 30, 2021.

If the census numbers arrive by June 17, 2021, as the U.S. Census Bureau indicated this week that they would, it would give mapmakers 74 days to draw the new wards.

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