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EDITORIAL: Public should not decide census question

Inform yourself before filling out the third question on your ballot. This is a complex issue with no easy choice. – Photo by usembassy.gov

If you received a mail-in ballot and plan to vote (which you should, as if you have not heard that a million times already), you have probably seen the public questions on the back of it. 

One of these questions is a bit more complex than the others.

The question asks, “Do you approve amending the Constitution to change when new legislative districts are created if the federal census data is delayed”?

Given the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic coinciding with the once-in-a-decade U.S. Census, which is a population count that accounts for factors such as gender, race, income and similar things, data may be delayed. That may not sound like a big deal, but the Census is used for many important things, like districting and aid allocation.

“The 2020 Census will determine congressional representation, inform hundreds of billions in federal funding every year and provide data that will impact communities for the next decade," according to the 2020 U.S. Census.

Needless to say, this is one of those issues that sounds boring and mundane on the surface but is actually important to the function of our society.

The New Jersey question has two viewpoints. The proponents for a delay argue that it is worth using old data for an extra year in order to make sure that an accurate count is used for the next decade. Others say that delaying accurate, up-to-date data will harm communities that need aid for the next year or two.

David Goodman, in an opinion piece, argues against delaying the count, according to NJ Spotlight News

“Approving this amendment would have immediate real-world consequences. It would freeze New Jersey’s 40 legislative districts into configurations established after the 2010 census, not current populations. The demographics of New Jersey have changed a lot in 10 years. Keeping the old districts especially hurts communities of color, leaving them significantly under-represented in today’s world,” he said.

Goodman and those who share his opinion in this matter are valid. Demographics are always changing, and an entire year is a long time to delay accurate data, particularly if such a delay is unnecessary.

But proponents for a delay are also valid in their own right — they say that pushing back the date a year, while not ideal, may be the only way to accurately count New Jersey’s growing minority population and ensure that they receive accurate representation.  

“The third question facing the public on the November ballot is complex and deals with legislative redistricting and possible Census Bureau delays. But supporters and opponents say an underlying issue is making sure the growing number of minority residents in New Jersey are fairly and accurately represented. There is disagreement on the best way to do that,” according to NorthJersey.com.

But the matter is even more complicated. If New Jersey passes the delay, it will not be able to redraw district lines for the state’s 2021 election a year from now.

“The Census Bureau has asked Congress to extend the deadline to July 31, 2021, due to delays blamed on the pandemic. If that happens, New Jersey would not be able to redraw districts in time for the state's primaries for the Nov. 2, 2021, general election,” according to FOX 5 New York.

This is a very split issue, and we are not, frankly, versed enough on the full complexities of this matter to issue an endorsement of the question. There are merits and drawbacks to both decisions.

What is interesting, though, is that this question was left to the New Jersey populace. Democracy is a great thing, but only if the public is thoroughly educated on a matter. When it comes to something as complex as the Census and redistricting, can we truly have faith that the public will make an informed decision?

The responsibility is on the government here. We still believe public decision should be taken into account, but it should be an informed one. It could have been informed if there was a government campaign to educate people on the Census.

An uninformed public should not have been given a poll question with such magnitude — it should have been left to the experts, given that there was no such government campaign. Not only politicians, but also legal experts and activist groups with more knowledge on the issue and how it can impact New Jersey’s growing minority population.

(But none of this may end up mattering. The Supreme Court ruled late yesterday that the Census count can stop early, which may make a delay a non-issue.)

What we will say, though, is that the U.S. Census needs to happen every five years — not every 10 years. If demographics were more commonly updated, a one or two year delay would not be as harmful. Populations and demographics change rapidly, and to prevent gerrymandering and inaccurate data, the Census needs to be updated more often.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 152nd editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.


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