Census delay sends redistricting ripples nationwide

By Michael Macagnone
CQ-Roll Call/TNS
The Census Bureau's census delay could cause problems with redistricting across the nation.

WASHINGTON - The Census Bureau’s late delivery of redistricting data will trigger a cascade of delays across the country, potentially complicating the mapmaking process in many states and delaying local elections.

Congress may still pass a law extending the agency’s deadline to deliver apportionment figures, but that won’t help states about to bump against, or crash through, their own legal deadlines to redraw legislative and congressional maps. A handful of states, such as New Jersey and California, have mechanisms in place to handle census data coming up to four months late. Others, less so.

“There have been tests [of the system] before - some state has been late with their data. Certainly nothing like the systemic and widespread delay, for obvious reasons, that we’re seeing. That will be coming up and making so many state governments basically do improv,” said Jason Rhode, the national coordinator of the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

The Census Bureau missed, for the first time ever, its Dec. 31 deadline to deliver congressional apportionment data following disruptions caused by the pandemic, natural disasters and various decisions by the former Trump administration.

The agency originally requested a 120-day deadline extension after months of operational delays. The Trump administration later abandoned that effort amid a push to exclude undocumented immigrants from apportionment.

On Wednesday, a Census Bureau official told state legislators during a conference that the first set of results from the 2020 census probably won’t be released for several more months. The agency confirmed that assessment Thursday.

“Our current schedule points to April 30, 2021, for the completion of the apportionment counts. This date remains fluid and could continue to change as data processing continues,” it said in a statement.

The delay in delivering apportionment figures would line up with the agency’s original request last year for a statutory deadline extension following numerous pandemic-related delays.

Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, said he plans to reintroduce a bipartisan bill from last year that would extend the agency’s deadline to the end of April.

“The Census Bureau should take all the time it needs to report accurate apportionment and redistricting data and make sure every person is counted as mandated by the Constitution,” he said in a statement. “We trust the experts at the Census Bureau and will work with the agency as we reintroduce our bill to extend the statutory deadlines and ensure that we get a fair, accurate count.”

However, that won’t help state governments on a ticking constitutional clock.

After the Census announcement Wednesday, the National Conference of State Legislatures released a five-point plan for states dealing with the problems caused by the delays. States can petition their courts for relief, change their redistricting laws, modify their primary and filing dates, make “best guess” maps with preliminary data, or create a backup body to draw maps quickly with the late data, NCSL said.

Wendy Underhill, the director for the organization’s elections and redistricting program, said the later the process goes the more it may flummox the actual running of the next set of elections. Election officials must draw up new precincts and place voters in the proper spots, she said, on a tight timeframe.

“‘Oh, just move your primary date.’ I’m not saying that’s easy, but it is a thing states can be looking at,” Underhill said.

Two states have legislative elections this year, New Jersey and Virginia, that could be affected by the delay. Last year, New Jersey voters passed a constitutional amendment allowing the legislature to run this year on the old boundary lines and redistrict before the 2023 legislative elections. Virginia, however, did not pass an amendment or legislation to deal with a delay.

Other states have constitutional or statutory deadlines to finish the mapmaking process that the late redistricting data could scramble. For instance, Texas’ constitution mandates the legislature redraw its districts during the legislative session - which ends in March.

Lloyd Potter, the state’s demographer, said the governor could call a special legislative session over the summer, or the state could fall back on a redistricting commission made up of statewide elected officials.

California took a different route, with the legislature asking its Supreme Court last year for a four-month extension, which it granted. Colorado may also end up going that route, according to Sandra Chen, a researcher with the Princeton Gerrymandering Project.

The Colorado state constitution mandates the state’s redistricting commission meet in March and present a preliminary set of new maps within 45 days, or “whenever the necessary census data is available, whichever is later,” but sets a final deadline of September. Chen said the commission may not meet that deadline and the interpretation could be open to the courts.

“The plan is basically to let it go to the Supreme Court and ask the Supreme Court to grant this extension given the extraordinary circumstances. So that could be a model for other states as well with constitutional deadlines to maybe just make it a one time thing for the Supreme Court to decide,” Chen said.

Amanda Gonzalez, executive director of Common Cause Colorado, said that doesn’t leave much time for the mechanics of the redistricting process, even if there is technically enough time to draw maps. The commission, created by a 2018 ballot measure, mandates 21 public meetings as part of the mapmaking process along with an extensive public comment period.

“What we’re looking at right now is how do we maintain that process,” she said. “We want to give the commission time to review the information that comes to them, give community members time to look at the census data that comes in, and everybody’s gonna want time to, to look at the data.”