By KATIE MOEN
For The Westfield Leader
AREA — New Jersey Democrats gained some contested ground last week when the state’s Congressional Redistricting Commission chose to adopt the party’s map over one submitted by Republicans. Still, elected officials and state residents alike worry that the decision could make it more difficult for the party to retain its tenuous Congressional majority in the months and years to come.
The redistricting process occurs every 10 years and is intended to reflect shifting demographics as presented by the census. The Congressional Redistricting Commission, made up of six Democrats, six Republicans and one chairperson, voted along tight party lines to choose between the two maps. The decision ultimately fell to tiebreaker John Wallace, a retired state Supreme Court justice, who said he sided with the Democrats simply because the commission chose the Republican map in 2011.
Justice Wallace, a registered Democrat, said Thursday that while both maps met Constitutional standards, complied with the Voting Rights Act and fell in line with state priorities, the Democrats’ submission represented an elevated level of “partisan fairness.”
“In the end, I decided to vote with the Democratic map simply because in the last redistricting, the map was drawn by Republicans,” Justice Wallace said. “Democrats should have the opportunity to have their map used in the next redistricting cycle.”
Although the Democrats were able to swing Justice Wallace to their side and secure some peace of mind for struggling incumbents, the decision may still yield challenging consequences for certain members of the party. Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-Ringoes), whose 7th District stands to lose some deep blue support on the recently-adopted map, may find the road forward to be particularly rocky.
While Rep. Malinowski secured a narrow victory over challenger and Senate Minority Leader Tom Kean, Jr. (R-Westfield) in last year’s election, the new map will see local communities such as Cranford, Garwood and Kenilworth and part of Union Township head to Newark’s 10th District.
The loss of Union is especially unsettling for Rep. Malinowski, who got 4,906 votes from the township in 2020, accounting for nearly all of his 5,329-vote majority overall.
The 7th District also lost Millburn, a Democratic community in Essex County that will now be part of Rep. Mikie Sherrill’s (D-Montclair) 11th District. The 7th gained several towns, including Scotch Plains and Fanwood, which were in the 12th, and now encompasses all of Warren County and stretches into Republican strongholds in Sussex County as far north as Sparta.
“The NJ redistricting gods haven’t made it easy for us,” said Rep. Malinowski via Twitter, “but I’ve only ever won hard races, and my likely opponent [Mr. Kean] has only ever lost them — for good reason. Meanwhile, I will continue to fight to defend our democracy and deliver for New Jersey the infrastructure, tax relief and progress DC Republicans oppose. I’m at my best with nothing to lose.”
In addition to political ramifications, several community-based organizations, including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), noted that the new map represents a damaging “reduction in populations of color in several New Jersey congressional districts.” According to the NJISJ, marginalized communities are more likely to be negatively impacted by redistricting maps that fail to take the state’s shifting demographics into consideration.
In the Democratic 8th District, which includes parts of Bergen, Essex and Hudson counties as well as Elizabeth, the Hispanic population was reduced to under 50 percent of what it was in 2020 by the new designation. The move, the NJISJ said, “raises serious concerns under the Voting Rights Act and Supreme Court precedent, given that the Latina/o population currently controls the district.”
“We are troubled that the commission failed to protect the ability of Latina/o voters to elect their candidates of choice in the 8th Congressional District, a protection granted in the current congressional map and in the racial equity map submitted by racial justice advocates,” said Henal Patel, director of the Democracy & Justice Program at the NJISJ, who noted similar reductions in the 12th District, which includes sections of Mercer, Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties. Black and Asian populations also were reduced in both the 12th and 6th Districts, said Mr. Patel.
In doing so, social justice advocates from the NJISJ said, the state is essentially “cracking” marginalized communities in order to dilute their voting power.
“Redistricting impacts who runs for office, who is elected, and especially what policies become law,” information found on the NJISJ website reports, noting that more than 48 percent of New Jersey residents are people of color. “Fair maps are essential to make sure your voice is heard. New Jersey is not the same as it was 10 years ago [when the last maps were drawn]. Our maps do not reflect who we are. We must change that.”
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