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U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Lara Eakins).

Opinion: New congressional maps bad Christmas surprise for civil rights

By Frank Argote-Freyre and Christian Estevez, December 23 2021 3:10 pm

OPINION

As families across New Jersey prepare to open their Christmas presents, New Jersey’s Congressional Redistricting Commission gave us a big surprise for the holiday season — and it’s a stinker.

Earlier this week, the commission, chaired by former state Supreme Court Justice John E. Wallace, approved a new set of congressional maps that will go into effect in 2022.

At a time when voting rights are under attack nationwide and Republican-dominated legislatures across the country are pursuing extreme gerrymanders that disadvantage communities of color for base political purposes, New Jersey had a unique opportunity to be a model.

The commission, under Wallace’s leadership, could have broken with our state’s long history of backroom deals and political machinations by presiding over a transparent process that empowered advocates and that demonstrated that the needs of New Jersey voters were placed at the forefront.

Instead, the commission, days before Christmas and on a strictly party-line vote, quickly voted to approve new congressional maps without giving the public any time to review and comment on them.

The commission also failed to simultaneously release detailed demographic data to allow members of the public to evaluate how well these maps represent our state.

This issue is particularly key for Latino, Black, Asian and other voters of color because congressional redistricting has historically been used as a tool to limit their political power.

Before President Lyndon Johnson signed the federal Voting Rights Act into law in 1965, states across the nation regularly used the process of redistricting to limit the impact voters of color could have on the political process.

They alternatively “packed” these communities into exceptionally tightly drawn districts to limit their influence to picking a handful of congressional representatives — or they “cracked” these communities, separating neighbors from one other to dilute the vote of these communities and allow politicians to safely ignore them.

Both practices now violate federal law, and it was the Redistricting Commission’s job to empower these communities of interest so that that people of color could influence the political process.

New Jersey is the most diverse state in the nation, and our congressional maps should reflect this diversity and empower the residents who are driving demographic growth.

While five of our state’s existing 12 congressional districts ended up being majority minority, this is the result of fast-changing demographics — not because the map approved after the 2020 Census sought to empower people of color.

In this round of redistricting, advocates sought to cement political gains in 2020 and expand on them. A map proposed by a coalition of civil rights organizations, including the Latino Action Network, proposed six majority minority districts to fairly represent the approximately half of all New Jerseyans of voting age who are of color.

But the new maps approved by the commission failed to prioritize these civil rights goals. The eighth congressional district, which has long had a majority-Latino population, will see its Latino voting-age population drop to under 50 percent — an unacceptable outcome given that the current voting-age population is above 50 percent. The Latino Action Network is currently considering its options in responding to this problem.

Most states permit public comment on proposed maps before their adoption. This allows advocates and members of the public time to comment, identify problems and propose solutions.

But in New Jersey, advocates had no opportunity to evaluate the proposed maps before they were approved — nor were the competing Democratic and Republican maps released.

Instead, in a brief, 20-minute hearing and without allowing any public comment, Chairman Wallace announced simply that he would cast his tie-breaking vote in favor of the submission of the Democratic commissioners. He also revealed his previously publicly undisclosed criteria for choosing a map and gave as his reason that Democrats deserved a shot this decade after the Republican map was selected last time.

Chairman Wallace failed the residents of New Jersey.

This approach made a mockery of the process and left civil rights leaders stunned and without any chance to provide input that could improve the maps beforehand and address the glaring civil rights issue currently presented.

While we are extremely troubled by the way congressional redistricting played out, we hope that the body in charge of redrawing New Jersey’s state legislative districts, the Apportionment Commission, learns from these mistakes.

We need a better process that respects the people of this state and that takes the concerns of civil rights leaders and the public seriously. We need to understand the criteria the commissioners will use to craft updated legislative maps. And we need time to comment on any proposal is approved.

We cannot afford continued breaches of trust when our very democracy is under attack. Instead, New Jersey must lead the way in strengthening our political system rather than further weakening trust in government.

Frank Argote-Freyre is Chairman of the Latino Action Network Foundation and Christian Estevez is President of the Latino Action Network

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