Census data delay until fall adds risk to 2022 elections

By Gregory Korte
Bloomberg News/TNS
At least 330 million people lived in the United States as of April, according to a Census Bureau estimate. The 2020 data is being delayed due to the pandemic.

WASHINGTON - The U.S. Census Bureau said Friday that it won’t be able to provide detailed data on the 2020 Census until the end of September, causing a time crunch for states that need to redraw legislative boundaries ahead of the 2022 midterm elections.

The six-month delay will likely heighten tensions for state governments responsible for the politically charged task of redrawing congressional districts every 10 years in response to population changes.

In most states, legislatures draw the boundaries - allowing the party in power to draw districts to its advantage. But a half-dozen states have reformed their redistricting process over the last decade, meaning that their new, untested processes will be on even tighter time lines.

“The next round of redistricting in 2021 and 2022 will be the most challenging in recent history,” said Michael Li, an election lawyer with the Brennan Center for Justice, in a report published Thursday. In addition to the pandemic, rapid demographic changes and recent Supreme Court cases on gerrymandering will likely have a significant effect on redistricting, he said.

Census officials said the delays were necessary to work out data anomalies and ensure an accurate count.

“The biggest reason for the delays is COVID-19. It’s just something that’s beyond the bureau’s control,” said Kathleen Styles, chief of decennial communications for the Census Bureau. “This was really a census like no other. We had our mail-out back in early March and then on March 18 we had to cease all field operations because of COVID-19.”

The pandemic also shut down the mail rooms and telephone call centers, she said.

The redistricting data provided by the Census Bureau in September will follow the top-level count of population by state that reapportions congressional seats among the states. That apportionment data is also four months behind schedule and is expected by April 30.

Because the number of representatives is capped by law at 435, states lose seats and others gain as the population shifts. Independent analyses by the Brookings Institution and Election Data Services project that Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina and Oregon would each gain a congressional seat beginning in 2023. Florida would gain two seats and Texas three.

States losing congressional seats would include Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

Democrats now hold a 10-seat advantage in the House of Representatives, but the president’s party historically loses seats in mid-term elections.