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Way tells redistricting commissions that adjusted census numbers will take 7 days

Secretary of State pledges to release data to both parties — and the public — at the same time

By David Wildstein, August 09 2021 11:00 am

Municipal population numbers will be adjusted to reflect a new law that requires incarcerated individuals to be reallocated to their original hometown for the purpose of legislative redistricting within seven days of the U.S. Census Bureau transmitting data, New Jersey Secretary of State Tahesha Way said.

Way pledged not to provide anyone with advance copies of the municipal population numbers and said Democrats, Republicans and the public will receive them at the same time.

With redistricting census data expected to be released on Thursday, New Jerseyans may begin the process of drawing congressional districts for the 2022 election and legislative districts for 2023.

But unless Gov. Phil Murphy signs a bill passed by the legislature last month to similarly jigger census data on where inmates in state correctional facilities resided prior to their incarceration, maps will be drawn using separate sets of data.  The current law applies only to congressional redistricting and not legislative, freeholder districts, or municipal council wards.

The Republican leaders of the legislative and congressional redistricting commissions asked Way to address how the state will handle the reallocation of census data.

“While it is our understanding that the Commissions have not yet formally convened, please know the Department of State will provide the respective data to the bipartisan members of the Apportionment Commission, and the public at the same time pursuant to the law,” Way said in a letter to Legislative Apportionment Commission GOP Chairman Al Barlas and Congressional Redistricting Commission GOP Chairman Doug Steinhardt, as well as their Democratic counterparts, LeRoy Jones Jr. and Janice Fuller.

Way said that while her office does not “possess the Census data at this time,” her office “will be guided by the duties set forth under the law concerning the reallocation of incarcerated individuals whether their previous address is known or unknown.”

Barlas and Steinhardt said  that data  “has been greatly complicated by the Census Bureau’s use of differential privacy in the 2020 census.”

For the first time, the U.S. Census Bureau is using something called Disclose Avoidance Modernization to randomly adjust municipal population data in order to prevent super computers to penetrate the identities of individuals who participated in the census.””

While the total state population of 9,288,994 is an exact number, the total municipal populations, including wards and census tracts, will not be.  They’ll be affected by what the Census Bureau calls “statistical noise” to avoid “modern reidentification threats.”

In their letter to Way, Barlas and Steinhardt said that the “statistical technique deliberately  manipulates census data to assertedly protect the confidentiality of respondents by introducing ‘statistical noise’ into both population totals and demographic characteristics.”

“Although the  statewide population total provided by the Census Bureau will be accurate, both the population  totals for political subdivisions within the State and the reported characteristics of individuals  residing in any particular census block will be riddled with statistical noise,” Barlas and Steinhardt told Way.  “Therefore, the data that (Department of Corrections) receives from the Census Bureau will not match the data they collect on individuals within their custody.”

The Republicans cited a hypothetical: “A census block with a correctional institution might be reported at 800 people by the Census. The DOC records might indicate 600 people at that facility, or 1,000 people at that facility,” the GOP leaders asked. “Similarly, the Census might report that facility as having 600 white residents, but DOC records might indicate only 400 white residents.”

“This presents obvious complications for redistricting when the Census data will not align with the DOC data,” Barlas and Steinhardt said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, “the rise of computational power that threatens to reveal confidential information.”

“It is now possible, using sophisticated algorithms on powerful systems, to reverse-engineer large sets of aggregated, supposedly de-identified data,” the agency said in court filings.

Census officials say a test run showed the total population count for the average county was off by less than 1% using the disclosure avoidance system.   At the block level, the numbers are off by an average of 7.7 people.

“The Census Bureau’s decision to use differential privacy as its statistical method to meet the goal of avoiding the disclosure of individual responses may not be the best method to ensure states receive the most accurate data for redistricting purposes,” said Tim Storey, the executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, in a letter to lawmakers last year.

Since states must comply with the Voting Rights Act and the U.S. Constitutions “one-person, one-vote” standard, Disclosure Avoidance Modernization could affect the integrity of redistricting, Storey stated.

“If block-level census data is released in a form that is known to not represent the actual number of people enumerated at the block level, states may find themselves litigating based on the quality and accuracy of federal census data before plans are drawn and even afterwards,” said  Storey.

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