Many reporters, editors, and publishers who represent New Jersey’s ethnic media participated in a virtual press briefing on October 13 to discuss the issue of racial representation in New Jersey’s legislature and elections.
The speakers, Micauri Vargas, associate counsel, for the Democracy & Justice Program, New Jersey Institute for Social Justice; and Tomas C. Varela Jr., Founding Executive Director of the New Jersey Black Empowerment Coalition; emphasized that while it’s too late to change who’s on the 2023 ballot, journalists still have the power to bring attention to new and emerging leaders, to highlight laws affecting voter rights and to demystify the democratic process for diverse communities, including those who have recently immigrated to the U.S.
Both speakers agree that while New Jersey prides itself as a state with a mosaic of cultures and ethnicities, Trenton’s halls of justice – the seat of power in New Jersey – remains dominated by white, non-Hispanic men.
A look at the numbers
The overview presented at the briefing of New Jersey’s current Legislature although diverse, illustrates a lack of equal representation for women, latinos, asians and blacks.
New Jersey’s population is 52.9% white, non-Hispanic or Latino, and 49% male. However, of the 120 state senators and members of the Assembly who will constitute the 219th Legislature, 84 (70%) are white, non-Hispanic or Latino and two-thirds are men.
The result: white people are overrepresented by nearly 17 percentage points and white men are overrepresented by about 34 percentage points in the state legislature when compared to the state population.
Women make up roughly half of NJ’s population but only 30% of state legislators. Latino (8%) and Asian (2%) representation in NJ’s Legislature is significantly low, far from the reflected, 22% and 10% share, respectively, in the state’s population. Black lawmakers comprise about 15% of the Legislature which is above the state’s Black population of 12%.
Vargas asserted that for equal representation, it’s important to bridge the gaps in the ethnic makeup of members of the Legislature.
“It begins at the grassroots level, plus the public needs to be reminded that every vote counts,” Vargas said. “But getting equal representation continues to be hindered by several barriers especially language, justice and accessibility to ballot related information
“The media is a great way to inform the public, particularly underrepresented communities, about the different candidates – those who may better represent them and their needs,” she said.
“New Jersey also needs to have ballots printed in more languages because of the great diversity of languages spoken and read in the state. In addition, we need a strong voting rights act similar to those in New York and Connecticut that would protect the public from voter suppression tactics.”
Varela said the major issues in marginalized communities and that affect people of color in New Jersey reflect those experienced by similar groups across the country as they seek to achieve the American dream.
“In the past, U.S. policies were such that helped citizens move into the middle class,” he said. “But today, it seems we’re less willing to commit to such public policies – those that would reduce voter suppression tactics, improve maternal health for Black and brown women, provide greater access to quality education and make it easier for the startup of small businesses and their success. We need public policies that support and protect the existence of people of color, immigrants and other marginalized groups.”
Advincula asked both speakers to share their views on why the number of candidates of color continues to be so low in the state.
“Many don’t run for office because of the perception that it takes a lot of money to fund a successful campaign,” Varela said. “For immigrants, they often come to America with a different perception of what it means to participate in politics. They have a lack of trust in government and how it works in the U.S.
“Personal income may also influence why people of color may not run for office. The salaries for members of the legislature are relatively low while their time commitment can be quite high. For those who only need the money for supplemental income, it’s fine. But if you’re coming from a 9-to-5 job, you can’t make enough money to provide for yourself or your family.”
One participant in the briefing asked the speakers what they viewed as the role of ethnic media in increasing representation among the marginalized and communities of color.
“The media has to be seen as a trusted source of information – a messenger that provides the truth,” Varela said. “There’s a lot of misinformation out there which leads to voter apathy and confusion. Ethnic media can help better educate the communities they represent.”
“Ethnic media can amplify underrepresented voices and publish articles and profiles about candidates of color or women,” Vargas said. “They can also host discussions and participate in voter engagement promotions.”
In consideration of America’s senior voters
One issue that was not addressed during the briefing was obstacles to voting faced by older Americans. Those who are older may be underrepresented due to a variety of issues including lack of transportation to polling sites, sites that do not provide accommodations for those with disabilities and the often onerous new voter requirements enforced in many states.
Daniel Tokaji, an Ohio State University professor who specializes in elections, said many seniors are reluctant to vote “especially if that means the prospect of waiting in line for some unknown period of time.”
He also addressed challenges facing those who reside in assisted living facilities or nursing homes.
“The question will arise whether residents have the cognitive capacity to vote, and if there’s some uncertainty, who winds up being the decider?” he said. “It could be decided by the health care provider, for better or worse.”
“If you’re an older person of color and born in the South, you might not even have a birth certificate if you were born at home,” said Rich Fiesta, executive director of the Alliance for Retired Americans. “The irony is in spite of this, older voters still vote more than others but the laws in many states have a way of disenfranchising older people , people of color and people who are low income.”
New Jersey’s General Election Day is November 7. For questions about the ballot, voting sites or the requirements for voting, call 877-NJ-VOTER or go to www.vote.nj.gov.
This article, supported by the election reporting fellowship conducted by the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University, is the first of a three-part series on the 2023 New Jersey elections.