NJ Redistricting Commission Hears From The Public

The Record ( — Saturday, January 29, 2011

State House Bureau

CAMDEN — Civil-rights activists, voting advocates and a South Jersey farmer told a bipartisan panel Saturday to resist political trickery when they redraw New Jersey's legislative districts to reflect new Census figures.

Many told the panel – five Republicans and four Democrats, with one Democrat absent – that they detected manipulation already, in too-short notice about hearings in Camden and Toms River, the first two public forums.

"The vast majority of New Jersey residents did not know this was happening," said Ev Liebman, a program director for New Jersey Citizen Action. "It really didn't have to be this way."

Liebman told the panel to be transparent, with agendas, minutes, Census figures and public comments posted on a Web site.

The commission agreed at the second hearing to two more hearing dates: Feb. 9 in Newark and Feb. 13 in Jersey City. They also decided to invite to those hearings an 11th neutral tie-breaking member – yet to be named officially, but acknowledged by both parties to be Alan Rosenthal, a Rutgers University politics scholar.

One woman who testified, farmer Nora Craig of South Jersey, said her rural area has little voice, and sees its tax dollars spent elsewhere.

"What about our poor slobs who live out in the Pine Barrens? We've got nobody to speak for us," Craig said. "You build schools like crazy in North Jersey. The farmers in South Jersey are just kind of sick of it."

Authorities realign state legislative and congressional districts every 10 years, as Census data illustrate population shifts.

The commission overseeing changes to the state legislative districts expects those figures this week, and they will have until early April to create a map of 40 equally populated districts. The congressional redistricting panel is separate and its work won't begin until June.

The changes in North Jersey likely will be major, because the northeastern part of the state has lost residents to the southwestern area, early data show.

The realignment task this time will be more complex than ever.

For one, the re-mappers must adhere to recent federal rulings regarding gerrymandering, in which politicians carve districts according to their needs, often shortchanging minority, poor or under-educated communities. Also, they must abandon the maneuver that left Jersey City and Newark each divided among three districts. The law, starting with the 2011 remapping, will allow just one split in a municipality.

Latinos said they would be on the lookout for "packing" – which lumps a population expected to vote as a bloc – and "fracturing," which divides a potentially influential bloc among districts.

"The commission should recognize where there are Latino communities of shared interest and geographic proximity to ensure that legislative lines allow us to vote for and elect candidates of our choosing," Martin Perez, president of the Leadership Alliance of New Jersey, said in testimony read by an alliance member in Perez's absence.

Some Hispanics who testified said their representation in Trenton does not reflect a startling growth spurt, to 16.7 percent of the state population from 13.3 percent 10 years ago, according to preliminary Census figures.

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