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If coronavirus delays census, N.J. could be looking at ’21 redistricting lag — maybe a September primary

Nothing favors incumbents and strong political party organizations more than a tiny window of time between the approval of a map and the filing deadline

By David Wildstein, March 15 2020 4:59 pm

Growing concerns that the coronavirus pandemic will be impede the U.S. Census Bureau in fulfilling their constitutional obligation of carrying out the 2020 count could delay legislative redistricting and the 2021 primary election.

That could mean moving the primary to late June, as it was in 2001, a summer primary – New Jersey held an August 2013 primary for a special U.S. Senate election following Frank Lautenberg’s death – or a September primary, like New York.

New Jersey cannot officially begin the process of drawing new maps until the count is certified, even though many political cartographers have already begun sketching out maps using 2018 census estimates.

The Census Bureau traditionally fast-tracks New Jersey and four other states that hold odd-year legislative elections that are out of sync with federal races, but they are under no legal obligation to do so.

A September primary adds an interesting twist to next year’s gubernatorial race, when Gov. Phil Murphy is expected to seek re-election.  Late census numbers could extend a Republican primary to pick his opponent well into the summer or even after Labor Day.

A September gubernatorial primary would have a huge impact on the GOP race, especially for former Assemblyman Jack Ciattarelli, who launched his campaign in January and now faces caps on spending if he chooses to accept public financing.

Republicans would have little say over the postponement of the primary, since the decision would be made by the Democratic legislature and governor.

To further complicate matters: New Jersey could decide to hold primaries for governor, county and local office in June and a special primary for the legislature later.

In 2011, census data was released on February 3.  One month later, the New Jersey Apportionment Commissioner declared itself deadlock and Chief Justice Stuart Rabner appointed a tie-breaker, Rutgers professor Alan Rosenthal.

The new map came four weeks after that – just eight days before the filing deadline.

Nothing favors incumbents and strong political party organizations more than a tiny window of time between the approval of a map and the filing deadline.

Primaries have been postponed before

Another important consideration: New Jersey’s early voting laws were not in effect during the 2011 redistricting process.  Delays of filing deadlines would limit the window of mailing VBM ballots.

The 2001 primary election was moved to June 25 after the Census Bureau waited until March 8 to deliver data to New Jersey.

The reapportionment commission did not approve their plan until April 12, just a week before the filing deadline.  The process was delayed in part because a federal agreed to hear an appeal from Republicans who ran state government at the time in a bit to overturn a new map that strongly favored Democrats.

Here’s the worst-case scenario: New Jersey doesn’t get certified census numbers in time to draw new districts next year.  That means the Senate and Assembly would run in their old districts in 2021, new districts in 2022, and again in 2023.

There does not appear to be a mechanism by which the terms of the current legislature can be extended past 2021.

There are other options, including a December 2021 special election for Senate and Assembly in new districts to get the election in under the wire before the new legislature takes office in January 2022.

In February, 1984, a panel of federal court judges overturned the 1982 congressional map and drew their own plan that was used in the 1984 primary and general elections.  Most of the delegation ran in three different districts from 1980 to 1984.

New Jersey has not always held June primaries.  Those elections were run in April until 1965, when it was held in June.  Primaries were then moved to September in 1966 and 1967 to accommodate new legislative maps caused by the U.S. Supreme Court’s One-man, One-vote decision.  Since 1968, New Jersey has held primary elections on the Tuesday following the first Monday in June.

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