WNYC's Bob Hennelly is an award-winning investigative journalist. While at WNYC he has reported on a wide gamut of major public policy questions ranging from immigration and homeland security to power outages and utility mergers.
Re-districting is the 10-year ritual the Constitution provides to insure the Congress reflects basic demographic changes in the nation it represents.
Like Virginia, New Jersey has the least time to waste because state legislative elections are this year. As a result, the bi-partisan legislative redistricting panel must redraw the State's legislative boundaries to reflect the latest 2010 census data all in the next two months.
Fairleigh Dickinson Political Science Professor Peter Wooley said the stakes are high because the panel defines the political landscape until 2020 when the next Census is undertaken.
"So what these guys do in the next few months is really going to determine the winners and losers for the next 10 years," Wooley said.
After the panel lays out the new boundaries for the district lines for the 40 State Senators and 80 Assembly members the panel will move on to re-drawing the Congressional district lines.
The 10-member panel is composed of five Democrats and five Republicans. There is an 11th independent member who comes into play if the panel cam not reach consensus. Their final plan can be challenged in federal court.
The latest census numbers show New Jersey grew but below the national average and not enough to continue holding to all of its 13 House seats.
That means New Jersey's redistricting panel has to re-draw the district boundaries to accomodate just 12 Congressional districts. That could theoretically pit two incumbents against each other depending on how the new lines are drawn.
The re-districting panel also has to factor in an increase of both Latino and Asian voters as well as a population shift to the south. Latino residents now outnumber African Americans in New Jersey and Asians now make up 8 percent of the state's population.
FDU professor Peter Wooley said the redistricting panel has to take the state's new demographics into account.
"If you add up New Jersey's minority populations now, it amounts to maybe a little more than two out of five voters and that's certainly not reflected in the legislature now," Wooley said.
Currently, the U.S. House delegation has one African American member, Congressman Donald Payne, and one Latino member, Congressman Albio Sires.
A central question to be resolved is how does the new district map handle the state's existing majority minority communities.
Wooley said the redistricting panel must also consider the population density shifting to south Jersey. "Burlington, Ocean Counties and the suburbs outside Philadelphia have seen a lot of development," Wooley said.
Right now Democrats hold a seven to six edge in the state's Congressional district. Historically, New Jersey's redistricting process made incumbents even less vulnerable.