TRENTON – Fresh off an election in which Republicans gained seven legislative seats, the panel that will redraw New Jersey’s legislative map using the results of the 2020 Census held its first public hearing Saturday.

Every 10 years – or slightly longer, if a pandemic delays the census results – the map boundaries are adjusted so that each of the 40 districts has roughly the same number of people. The Democrats’ map was selected in 2001 and 2011, and the party gradually expanded its majorities in Trenton.

But those gains peaked in 2017 and now begun to reverse, increasing the stakes of what was already a crucial process that helps determine control of the Senate and Assembly, as well as how many districts around the state are truly competitive.

Jerome Harris, chairman emeritus of the New Jersey Black Issues Convention said, political polarization is a reality of this moment in time – and urged the Apportionment Commission not to add to it.

“How this commission does its work can have an effect of reinforcing the underlying principles of democracy and people’s trust, or you could proceed to do your work in such a way that further undermines people’s confidence in democracy.”

Both the congressional and legislative redistricting panels are planning more public hearings than a decade ago – a mix of in-person and online events, during regular work hours and weekends.

Suggested maps will also be able to be submitted by members of the public. Christopher Gliwa, a Princeton University graduate student, welcomed that announcement, saying everyone has an opinion about what communities their hometowns share something in common with.

“If we really want to engage the public in a meaningful way, I think map submissions make it a lot easier for these people to literally define their communities of interest, to help you all in your work,” Gliwa said.

A dozen people testified Saturday.

Rutgers University senior Neha Aluwalia urged the panel to move her hometown of Plainsboro into the same district as West Windsor, given that they share a school district and much more.

“Our communities have a need to share resources and should share a representative as well,” Aluwalia said.

The townships also have similar demographics, with huge concentrations of immigrants from South and East Asia. About 58% of Plainsboro’s residents and 55% of West Windsor’s are of Asian descent, with about 53% of residents in Plainsboro and 40% in West Windsor born in another country.

Sue Davies, founder of a group called New Jersey Independent Voters, said the state doesn’t need uncompetitive districts that are safe for incumbents.

“We’ll never be able to solve the problems that our state faces unless we get past the partisan divides that keep us from creating new solutions,” Davies said. “That can’t happen without amplifying the voices of independents.”

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The state has 2.4 million people who choose to register to vote as unaffiliated – 37% of those registered. But they’re less likely to vote, accounting for 19% of people who voted early in-person or by mail in last week’s election.

Unofficial results show Democrats won 58% of seats in the state Legislature while getting 51% of the vote in last week’s elections. Vote counting will continue through the end of this week.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at michael.symons@townsquaremedia.com.

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