New Jersey’s 40 state legislative districts are drawn by a ten-member commission largely composed of politicians. Each of the state’s two political parties selects five commissioners. An 11th member is selected by the Chief Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court to serve as a tiebreaker if the commission cannot agree on maps by the deadline. Voters in each of the 40 legislative districts elect one senator and two assembly members.
The congressional lines are drawn by a commission composed of 13 political appointees. Commissioners are chosen by the majority and minority leaders in the state senate and state assembly and the chairs of the state’s two major political parties, who then collectively choose a 13th commission member. If the partisan appointees to the commissions cannot agree on a 13th member, the state Supreme Court selects a 13th member from among the names provided to it by the two partisan delegations. The state must draw all new districts using census data adjusted to count incarcerated individuals at their last known pre-incarceration address.
The congressional map was challenged by Republican members of the commission, who alleged that the tiebreaker, former State Supreme Court Justice John Wallace, had ulterior motives in moving forward with the Democrat-supported map. The New Jersey State Supreme Court unanimously dismissed the lawsuit on February 3, 2022, finding that the lawsuit did not have legal merit.
Community of Interest Story
During this cycle, considerable effort was made to ensure a proportional number of majority-Black districts across the state. According to the U.S. Census, 15.3% of the state of New Jersey is Black, yet only one of 40 state legislative districts is majority Black. Fair Districts New Jersey, a coalition focused on fair, representative, and community-driven redistricting (and led by the League of Women Voters of New Jersey) worked to create a map that brought together communities of interest (COIs) while meeting all legal requirements.
The coalition was able to draw three majority-Black state legislative districts in the Newark metro area.53 Community organizers found the final map to be packed in District 28, which was about 72% Black. Conversely, the unity map was able to draw three majority-Black districts around the Newark, Orange, East Orange, and Montclair areas; it was endorsed by a wide swath of civil rights organizations such as the NAACP State Conference, the Latino Action Network, and the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
Despite the outcome, organizers found that this cycle there was unprecedented public participation, and expressed hope that raising awareness on these redistricting map concerns will help to mobilize voters, increase turnout, and spur advocacy for the next redistricting cycle. Coalition members of Fair Districts New Jersey noted that the group might pivot to redistricting reform in anticipation of the next cycle.
Overall State Grade: B-
Disenfranchisement of Black voters: As outlined in the COI story above, community organizers found the commission was not receptive to public testimony about creating majority-Black districts nor to the potential configuration of majority-Black districts afforded by the unity map.
Public access: Feedback on public access was mixed; while organizers appreciated the public hearings and ability to participate virtually, and overall found that the opportunities to participate were greater than in the past, people expressed the desire for increased transparency and data sharing. These areas are expanded on in the following section.
- Effective coalition work moved the needle: Community organizers noted that the Fair Districts New Jersey coalition was the largest and most diverse coalition that has ever worked on redistricting in the state. Despite the challenges of balancing different goals and priorities, the coalition worked together effectively and is looking towards potentially continuing to work together to advocate for redistricting reforms to ensure more representative and fair maps in the future.
- Multiple modes of public access mattered: Organizers noted that public access to participation was improved compared to the last cycle. For example, ten public hearings were held this cycle compared to three in 2011. The public could participate online, in person, or through written testimony. Further, people were able to submit their own maps and were able to comment after the release of official draft legislative maps, a first for New Jersey.
- An independent redistricting commission is still needed: Studies have found that independent redistricting commissions produce maps that are more competitive, fair, and less partisan than those drawn by politicians.54 As outlined above, organizers found this cycle’s state legislative maps, drawn by elected officials, were not representative nor fair, particularly in regards to voters of color.
- Public access and transparency should be expanded: While many were satisfied with some aspects of the public testimony process, there was room for improvement. Community organizers expressed the desire for all mapping meetings to be held in public and for the congressional draft maps to be shared. Further, some found navigating the public map submission process difficult. Lastly, advocates would like improved communication from the Department of Corrections regarding data used to reallocate the incarcerated population to their last known address. Receiving data in a timely manner proved to be a challenge.
- Resources must be provided in languages other than English: To further promote public access, the state should create and disseminate resources in languages other than English. According to a recent U.S. Census survey, 31.9% of people in New Jersey speak a language other than English at home,55 and 12.1% speak English “less than very well.”56 Redistricting resources should be provided in the following languages (the top languages other than English spoken in the state) to encourage a broader reach of participation: Spanish, Filipino (Tagalog), Chinese, Hindi, and Korean.57 It is further emphasized that a significant portion of the population (16.1%) speaks Spanish, and thus, materials provided in Spanish would be particularly valuable for a significant portion of the state population.58