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Census Bureau Says States Won’t See Data Needed for Redistricting Until Late September

February 12, 2021 by Dan McCue
Virginia Congressional District Map.

WASHINGTON – There’s no question that the once-every-10-year process of redistricting is off to a slow start. 

Though the U.S. Census Bureau ended its collection of data for the 2020 census on Oct. 15, 2020, it missed the December statutory deadline for the delivery of apportionment data. That’s the raw data that will show which states are gaining seats in Congress and which might lose one or more. 

The agency has attributed the delay to the coronavirus pandemic and anomalies found in the census data, and now says states should have that information in hand by March 31. 

But on Friday, redistricting efforts across the nation took another hit when the bureau announced they won’t get the most critical data for their efforts — the Public Law 94-171 file, in redistricting speak —data that gets down to how much population is in each and every census block, until Sept. 31. 

In a departure from past censuses, the Bureau says it will now deliver the data to all states at once, rather than over time, as it is tabulated. 

“This change has been made because of COVID-19-related shifts in data collection and in the data processing schedule and it enables the Census Bureau to deliver complete and accurate redistricting data in a more timely fashion overall for the states,” the agency said in a press release. 

 The redistricting data will include counts of population by race, ethnicity (Hispanic or Latino origin), voting age, housing occupancy status, and group quarters population, all at the census block level — the information that states need to redraw or “redistrict” their legislative boundaries.

In an attempt to soften the blow of Friday’s news, the Census Bureau said it spoke to each states’ redistricting liaisons, and reminded them they have access to “prototype geographic support products … to help them begin to design their redistricting systems.” 

“In addition, the Census Bureau today completed the release of all states’ 2020 Census geographic products needed for redistricting. This will enable states to redistrict promptly upon receipt of their 2020 census tabulation,” the agency said. 

Nevertheless, the import of Friday’s news is that it confirms – if there was any doubt – that those tasked with redistricting in their respective states are now faced with a tremendously compressed timetable to get their new legislative and congressional district maps in order. 

 As a general rule, this redistricting must be completed before filing deadlines for the next primary elections for federal and state legislators. Delays in getting the census data are particularly problematic for states like Texas and Illinois, whose deadlines to file for a primary are typically the December preceding the election. 

How states decide to address this issue will depend on the exact nature of their problem. Is their redistricting deadline statutory or constitutional? If constitutional, is it too late to amend the constitution prior to the passage of said deadline? 

And there is one more factor compounding these headaches — by the time the numbers they need come in, many state legislatures tasked with redrawing the districts will not be in session.

Whether they could come back in special sessions to do the redistricting is set by state law, meaning the courts might have to take over the process. 

Experts in redistricting say the latter option is awkward, but it has been done from time to time. 

In a recent piece in State Legislatures Magazine, Ben Williams, a policy specialist on elections and redistricting at the National Conference of State Legislatures, identified five potential routes states could take to try to overcome these challenges. 

“Don’t think of this as a list of recommendations,” Williams cautioned The Well News. “Rather, think of them as a list of things states could consider when navigating their way out of the problems caused by the delays at the Census Bureau.” 

So what’s on policy analyst’s lists? 

  • Ask courts for relief. Entities involved in the redistricting process can petition their state courts to seek relief from statutory or constitutional redistricting deadlines. Williams points out that California successfully pursued this option in mid-2020. 
  • Alter the law. States can either pass new statutes or amend their constitutions to eliminate deadlines or create exemptions from those deadlines if the release of census data is delayed. Williams notes that New Jersey successfully pursued this option, with voters ratifying an amendment to the Garden State’s constitution in 2020. New York is placing a similar amendment before its voters this fall. But Williams cautions, this option will be tough for states that cannot amend their constitutions before their existing redistricting deadline. 
  • Alter filing deadlines or primary election dates. It almost seems simple when Williams says it, but in states where the true deadline to redistrict is the filing deadline for primary elections, lawmakers do have the option of altering those deadlines as much as possible to give their redistricters additional time to complete their task. “Virginia, one of the handful of states with odd-year legislative elections, has done this in the past when census issues have arisen,” he said. 
  •  Turn redistricting into a two-step process. Use the best data available at present to redistrict on schedule, with the understanding that amendments will need to be made once the P.L. 94-171 data is available. 
  • Pass statutory backup mechanisms to complement existing processes. “States with redistricting deadlines for their primary line-drawing entity (the legislature in most states, a commission in the others) could consider passing new laws creating backup commissions or boards that would be tasked with redistricting if the primary entity fails to complete its task by the statutory or constitutional deadline,” Williams said. 

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