Why do we care?
A sustainable society is one in which everyone participates in public decisionmaking by electing people who can accurately represent their perspectives. While an individual of any race or gender may serve the interests of others well, it is both fair and healthy for our democracy when our elected officials reflect the makeup of the population they serve. Inequalities can result when minorities and those who live in poor areas do not have equal representation. Moreover, a diverse elected body suggests that all groups in the society have access to the political process, since they can get their own representatives elected.
How are we doing?
The New Jersey state legislature has 120 members, 40 in the Senate and 80 in the General Assembly. The number of female members has grown significantly, but still remains extremely low, at 16.7 percent in 2003. Although that does represent significant growth compared to 3.3 percent in 1971, New Jersey earns 39th place in national standings.(1) According to the 2000 Census, the female population of New Jersey is 51.5 percent of the whole population.
The percentage of Latino state legislators also remains proportionately smaller than our Latino population. In 2000, the Latinos accounted for 13.3 percent of the state’s population, but in 2003 the share of Latinos in the state legislature was only 5.8 percent. This is a significant increase, given that the first Latino representative was only elected in 1985, but we still have a way to go to achieve proportionality.
One group has made significant progress in the past two decades. The number of African American state legislators today is nearly proportional to the size of our black population. The 2000 Census found that African-Americans comprised 13.6 percent of the state, while their share of the legislature was 13.3 percent in 2003.
Although we have made some progress, most of the minority representatives in the State Legislature are in the 80-member General Assembly. The 40-member Senate is still composed largely of white males. In 2003, there were no Latinos in the Senate, and only 12.5 percent of the members were women. Because General Assembly members are often elected to the Senate later in their careers, this disparity may lessen in the future.
What else would we like to know?
These data must be considered in relation to data on voter registration and turnout, both overall levels and differences in those levels across communities, in order to assess whether higher voting rates lead to more representative government. It will also be interesting to consider how other elected and appointed positions, such as local officials, reflect the composition of their communities. We must also consider the design of electoral districts. It is easier for minority candidates to be elected in districts with a high concentration of minorities than if the minority populations are scattered throughout the election districts.
Targets with which to assess state progress have not yet been established for this indicator.
(1) Center for American Women and Politics, Rutgers University, http://www.rci.rutgers.edu/~cawp/facts/map.html
(2) Dept. of Labor data (Indicator 7) refer to Hispanics and blacks, legislative data refer to Latinos and African Americans (Indicator 8).