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Possible unintended consequences in redistricting constitutional amendment

Jersey City council race could throw wrench into legislative redistricting plan

By David Wildstein, July 14 2020 5:11 am

A delay in drawing new legislative districts until the 2023 elections could have unintended consequences in political party and local races next year.

Democratic legislative leaders are moving forward on a constitutional amendment that would keep the current legislative map intact for 2021, if the U.S. Census doesn’t certify their New Jersey population data by February 15.

In Jersey City, a late census would likely affect the redrawing of six wards for the 2021 city council election.

The state’s second-largest city has grown by about 10% over the last decade, with greater expansion in some wards than others.

If Jersey City doesn’t go through redistricting for next year’s election, it would effectively mean the ward map would reflect 15-year-old numbers before the next time city council elections are held in 2025 – or halfway through the 2020 census.

Using old ward lines in Jersey City next year could result in the underrepresentation of minority voters.

The same situation affects other municipalities with ward council elections in 2021, including Linden, Monroe, Old Bridge, Plainfield, Roselle, Summit, Toms River, Westfield and Woodbridge.

The legislature could adopt special rules for these municipalities to deal with population and racial imbalances in local elections, but to do so might force them to acknowledge flaws in the constitutional amendment if someone challenges it in court.

If they address these local issues statutorily to go into effect in 2021 or 2022, then perhaps the legal argument could be made that there was time to do the same thing for their own seats.

Like legislative districts, size matters in drawing local ward lines.  The U.S. Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote decision mandated voting maps to be drawn as close to equal in population as possible.

State law prohibits changes to local maps within 75 days of a primary election for partisan races.

It’s not immediately clear is the legislature can have it both ways.

The proposed constitutional amendment, which would be on the ballot for voter approval in November, refers only to the legislature and not local, county or party offices.

In places where county Democratic and Republican organizations pushed their 2020 county committee elections to 2021, it could mean that new districts won’t be drawn in time.  By 2022, party leaders that control county election boards that draw local election districts might have time to gerrymander renegade county committee members into a new district before county chairs have to seek re-election.

That could also affect special election conventions in the event of vacancies for the legislature or other partisan offices.

In Atlantic County, where two of the five district freeholder seats are up in 2021, census delays might result in freeholders running in their old districts for a three-year term that doesn’t expire until 2024.

The coronavirus pandemic has slowed the census count, and the Trump administration has said certification could be delayed by as much as four months.

An earlier version of this story listed Atlantic City, which has at-large elections in 2021.

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