Deciding who speaks for you: The power of redistricting | Opinion

February 17, 2022 1:58 pm

Republicans and Democrats have proposed two different maps that have new boundaries for the state’s 40 legislative districts.

Who speaks for you? Who speaks for your community?

This is the question at the core of our democracy. We can’t all be at the Statehouse in Trenton or at Congress in D.C. every day to share our opinions on the many big (“How much should we spend to educate our children?”) and small (“What should our state flower be?”) decisions that shape our lives, so we elect others — representatives — to speak for us in the halls of power.

In a democracy, our elected representatives are the conduits through which our collective voice – indeed, our power – can be exercised to create policies that change our lives and affect our communities.

Each of us has multiple elected representatives – state assembly members, state senators, members of the U.S. House of Representatives – who are tasked with speaking for our entire community.

Many of us would feel uncomfortable letting our friends order for us at a restaurant, let alone choose what is best for our entire neighborhood when it comes to things as major as our kids’ schools or as technical as stormwater runoff regulations.

So how do we make sure our elected representatives are the right people to speak for us when it comes to the most important issues in our lives?

There is too much at stake to get this question wrong, especially for communities of color. Our history is filled with the elected representatives of white communities denying Black people and people of color true representation and silencing their voice to disastrous results.

One way we decide who speaks for us is through elections. In an election, the person who gets the greatest number of votes to speak on behalf of our community becomes our voice in government.

The other way – an often-overlooked process that can be even more influential than elections – is via redistricting.

Redistricting determines the geographical boundaries of our political districts. Our representatives speak on behalf of those districts, with each district having the same number of people in it. That way, each of us has an equal voice (“one person, one vote!”), and theoretically equal power, when big decisions are being made in government.

Redistricting, or redrawing those districts, is done every 10 years after the census to make sure all districts still have the same number of people in them. Because districts are made up of communities, when those in power come together and redraw those districts, they are often deciding whether or not you and your community will have a voice. Will your community be cracked apart into multiple districts, with no single district where you can have influence and be sure your representative will speak for you? Will your community be packed together, limiting you to one representative voicing your concerns, when you should have many?

Even today, those in power tasked with redrawing districts have too often packed or cracked Black communities and other communities of color – stifling their voice and diluting their power – rather than giving them the opportunity to decide who speaks for them and their specific needs. They fear that, if given a choice, these communities might decide a new or different voice would be better at speaking for them and their community, and that the status quo might be shaken.

As part of the current (and soon to be completed) redistricting process in New Jersey, a coalition of social justice organizations has proposed a “unity map” that prioritizes racial equity. This map draws district boundaries in such a way that groups that share common interests will have the political power to elect people who will really represent them.

Please join us today (before it’s too late!) in asking the New Jersey Apportionment Commission – the officials who will be determining the final district maps – to consider this map as it comes up with a final one. You can also still submit written testimony to the commission about your community and what it needs, so the commission can consider that when it draws its final map. No one knows your community better than you, so use your voice!

Remember: Redistricting is about power. And you have the power to determine who speaks for you.

The next meeting of the New Jersey Apportionment Commission is tomorrow, Friday, Feb. 28, in committee room No. 4 at the Statehouse Annex, 131-137 W State St, Trenton.

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Matt Duffy
Matt Duffy

Matt Duffy is the Special Counsel for Redistricting at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Before joining the Institute, Matt was the Staff Attorney on the Center for Popular Democracy’s national Voting Rights and Democracy campaign, working to expand voting rights and advance structural reforms that put people back in charge of our democracy. Prior to that, while in law school, Matt worked with the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program and served for Justin Barry T. Albin on the Supreme Court of New Jersey. Before law school, Matt spent five years with FSG, a social-impact consultancy, providing strategy and evaluation advice to non-profits, local governments, major philanthropies, and community coalitions. Matt holds a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University, and a J.D. from Columbia Law School, where he was a Public Interest Law Fellow and a recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Prize.