Last night, the Legislative Apportionment Commission held a nearly three-hour meeting gathering testimony from members of the public on the commission’s two legislative map proposals, which were released on Monday.
Over the course of the meeting, dozens of New Jerseyans – some in elected office, most not – voiced their compliments, concerns, and complaints about the two proposals, one of which was drawn by Democrats and the other by Republicans. While it would be fruitless to summarize everything that was said, here are three takeaways that the commissioners will likely be pondering in the days ahead.
Create more majority-minority districts
By far the most consistent specific demand, referenced repeatedly throughout the meeting, was the creation of more majority-minority districts.
On both maps, there are 17 majority-minority districts – in which non-Hispanic white residents are less than 50% of the total population – and 23 majority-white districts. But in a state that’s evenly divided between white and nonwhite residents, testifiers argued that 17 out of 40 is wholly insufficient.
“Both maps continue to overrepresent white communities. Given that New Jersey is a state that is effectively half people of color, it is only fair that New Jersey’s districts be drawn so that half of them are majority people of color,” said Matthew Duffy of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “It’s not right or fair to New Jersey’s communities of color to continue to be cut up and underrepresented in the legislature, especially given the demographic changes of the last ten years.”
Going further than demanding majority-minority districts, which can often still have a white plurality, several testifiers argued that the creation of more Black-majority and Latino-majority districts is necessary.
“Black people are [12%] of the state, yet only have one Black-majority district,” said Faith in New Jersey’s Charlene Walker. “My ancestors died for their right to vote, yet here we are still fighting for our vote to count.”
Also at issue was the proper representation of Asian Americans, who make up 10% of the state’s population but have historically been underrepresented in the legislature. The Republican map retools Central Jersey’s 17th district to be a plurality-Asian district, which some testifiers seemed to support while others criticized it for decreasing the Asian population in surrounding districts.
Many of the testimonies in support of more majority-minority districts referenced Fair Districts NJ’s “Unity Map,” which creates 20 majority-minority districts – but importantly, it does so at the cost of compactness and continuity of representation, two other factors the commission must consider.
Don’t put my town in that district
For some testifiers, their plea to the commission was far more specific: don’t mess with my hometown, please and thank you.
Residents of Hillside argued their Union County town shouldn’t be put in the Essex County-based 27th district; Red Bank and Neptune City residents objected to their removal from the 11th district on the Republican map; Morris County denizens criticized the targeting of Republican incumbents on the Democratic map; and testifiers from Camden and Pennsauken urged the commission to put their hometowns in the same district.
These types of changes, especially when they involve relatively minor towns and population shifts, are sure to be considered by the commission in the coming weeks, as Carchman works to tweak each map to better match public testimony and communities of interest.
But several other potentially contentious components of each map went unremarked upon, a sign that the volume of opposition at the hearing had more to do with the organization of a given town’s residents than with the objectionable characteristics of the maps themselves.
The Democratic map, for example, completely redraws Burlington County, splits Jersey City three ways, and separates Port Republic from Galloway, but the first two points were only mentioned once and the third, not at all. And on the Republican map, the total chaos created in the 12th, 18th, and 22nd districts in Middlesex County was largely disregarded in favor of talking about Asian American representation in the 16th and 17th districts.
Carchman and the ten commissioners surely came away from last night thinking about the concerns that testifiers mentioned, but they would also do well to think of what wasn’t brought up at all.
Leave partisan politics out of this
Over the course of the three hours, one key aspect of the maps was almost entirely ignored: partisan politics. Except for some brief references to the Morris County Republican legislators targeted by the Democratic map, the partisanship of each map took a backseat to concerns about minority representation and communities of interest.
One interpretation of this omission is that the populace of New Jersey – unlike the ten highly partisan members of the commission – simply doesn’t care that much about politics, and sees the legislative map primarily as a vehicle for community, not partisan, representation.
But that seems a touch naïve, especially when so many of the testifiers were themselves elected officials or party figures. An alternate explanation is that, although many testifiers had at least partially partisan motivations, they chose to couch those motivations in the more acceptable language of community representation.
In the 11th legislative district, for example, Democrats strongly want State Sen. Vin Gopal (D-Long Branch) to have as many Democratic-leaning Monmouth County towns as possible. But that argument is more powerful when it utilizes the reasoning that, for example, Neptune City and Neptune Township shouldn’t be separated.