This originally appeared in NJ.com:
By Star-Ledger Guest Columnist
By Christian Estevez
The chairmen of both of New Jersey’s major political parties missed an important opportunity to demonstrate their parties’ commitment to diversity. They announced a slate of members to sit on the Apportionment Commission, responsible for drawing new state legislative districts, that drastically underrepresent the Latino community.
Even though Latinos make up more than 20% of the state’s residents, not a single member of the 10-person board is Hispanic. Similarly, Black New Jerseyans and women are dramatically underrepresented.
Representation is important because it ensures that the people who are drawing our legislative maps understand the experiences of communities of color, women and other traditionally represented groups.
Now that both political parties have made their picks to serve on the Apportionment Commission, it will be up to Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, who appoints the tie-breaking vote, to address these critical diversity issues with his selection. Every prior tiebreaker has been a white man; it is time to recognize that this tiebreaker role can and should also be inclusive of women and people of color.
While party leaders have failed to appoint a properly representative commission, our elected leaders in Trenton do have an opportunity to dismantle a series of structural problems with the redistricting process that have long frustrated the ability of disadvantaged groups to engage in the political process.
While New Jersey is one of the most diverse states in the nation, our political system is still largely controlled by white, male, and suburban political interests.
The Legislature’s decision to push back redistricting because of the COVID-19 pandemic gives lawmakers time to pass a comprehensive constitutional amendment that will protect the rights of disadvantaged groups, particularly Hispanic and Black New Jerseyans, and ensure that we are finally properly represented in Trenton.
A group of civil rights organizations, including the Latino Action Network, has come together to demand that key reforms to the redistricting process be enshrined in the Constitution to provide protections for communities of color and other disadvantaged groups.
As currently written, the state Constitution is practically silent on how districts can be drawn — which gives political insiders a free hand to choose districts that serve them and not the people they represent.
These reforms would change that dynamic.
Most important, we are asking that the Constitution be amended to include an objective set of standards for any legislative maps.
These standards would be designed to prevent Latinos, Black New Jerseyans, and other so-called “communities of interest” from having their political power diluted by having their neighborhoods split into multiple legislative districts. They would also codify important protections that have been watered down at the federal level as national Republicans attack civil rights laws, like the federal Voting Rights Act.
Similarly, we are asking that new legislative districts avoid splitting towns, cities, and counties into separate districts as much as possible.
At the same time, to prevent gerrymandering, the commission should have clear standards to stop the commissioners from drawing maps that favor one political party over another.
To ensure a transparent process, the commission should be required to hold multiple public hearings that are broadcast statewide. Advocates should be able to submit their own proposed legislative maps for public review, and the commission should be required to issue a report justifying the maps that they do adopt.
To prevent an obvious conflict of interest, state legislators should not be permitted to draw their own maps and should thus be barred from serving on the commission.
At a time when progressives nationally are pushing for new safeguards to protect the political process from partisan gerrymandering and attacks on our civil rights laws, it’s time that New Jersey’s legislators step up and provide a model for what a fair redistricting process looks like.
Legislative leaders must take advantage of this once in a decade opportunity to establish important safeguards to demonstrate that they care about ensuring that Latinos and other traditionally excluded communities get the opportunity to fully participate in the political process.
Christian Estevez is president of the Latino Action Network.