New Jersey voters are deciding whether to amend the state constitution to delay the redrawing of legislative districts that occurs after the census every 10 years, a change that could disadvantage people of color. 

Ballot Question 3 would give the state an extra two years to complete the redistricting process if the U.S. Census data is not provided by February 15th. The concern grows out of the state’s electoral schedule, which holds legislative and gubernatorial elections in odd-numbered years, including 2021 when the census will be completed and the maps redrawn. 

Essex County Assemblyman John McKeon wrote the bill that put the question on the ballot and he says redistricting is always too rushed.  But he’s even more concerned about next year because New Jersey is likely to challenge the Trump Administration’s census because he doesn’t believe it’s properly counting people of color and immigrants.  

“We're going to do this based on bad numbers, then that'll give you 10 years of our bad numbers as opposed to just two years of a continuation of the current map and then eight years of a map that's crafted to reflect what the demographics are for that,” said McKeon, a Democrat. 

The redrawing of legislative maps is meant to create districts that do not dilute the power of minority groups by splitting up their communities. But it is also used by incumbents to draw maps that ensure their re-election, by sticking voters from the opposing party in another district.

McKeon cites another problem: If districts are drawn too soon before an election, it disadvantages primary challengers. 

“That's like an incumbent's dream,” he said. “It makes it very, very difficult for someone to jump in and raise money.”

Listen to Nancy Solomon's radio story for WNYC:

A coalition of non-partisan good government groups oppose Ballot Question 3 because the state’s Latinx and Asian populations have grown by 20% since the last census.  A two-year delay would disadvantage those communities, according to Henal Patel of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. 

Even though there is a lot of frustration with the Trump Administration approach to the census, Patel says, the existing map is based on the 2010 count which also underrepresented people of color. But a new map, even if it’s flawed, will be better.

“While we might have to deal with communities that are undercounted, unfortunately, it is still more reflective of the population today than it was 10 years ago,” she said.

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