By Wendy Underhill
Last week, the U.S. Census Bureau asked Congress for permission to delay its 2020 Census data releases by 120 days.
That information a) determines how many congressional seats each state will have for the next 10 years and b) provides states with the detailed data they need to redistrict. For politicos, this is huge news, and it’s one more Covid-19 impact on our nation.
The bureau has delayed the beginning of its field operations until June 1, an understandable decision in light of the Covid-19 pandemic and shelter-in-place and stay-at-home orders.
It makes sense for the bureau to not have workers knocking on Americans’ doors at the moment. (I have a personal interest in this: My husband is a census enumerator.) If the door-knocking starts later, it delays everything downstream. For instance, now data collection will end 90 days later than originally planned, on October 31, 2020.
Only when data collection is complete can the bureau’s “lengthy, thorough and scientifically rigorous process” to prepare the data for release begin. Hence, the bureau’s request to Congress, to change the Congressional apportionment due date to April 30, 2021, and the deadline for releasing redistricting data to the states to July 31, 2021.
Understandable, all of this. We are living in extraordinary times.
But these delays confound state redistricting schedules. Perhaps hardest hit are the four states that have legislative elections scheduled, as usual, in 2021: Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia. If their data arrives in July, it will take some fancy legerdemain for those states to create new districts and set new filing dates and primary dates to run an election in November 2021. And that’s without mentioning that local election officials need time to adjust their operations to the new maps, so that the right ballot goes to each voter.
A handful of states have constitutionally set deadlines for redistricting—and we all know it’s no small task to change a state’s constitution. Still more states have deadlines in statute or rules, all of which may need adjustments. NCSL has a list of state redistricting deadlines.
Everyone is thinking about whether this will be the only delay needed by the Census Bureau, given the uncertainties of the virus.
Other questions have state-specific answers: Will the delayed data releases work with the state’s existing schedule? If not, can the legislature change deadlines? Will a special session for redistricting be required? Can the state wait for its 2022 session? How fast can the job be done? What will an accelerated timeframe mean for public input? Is there a backup plan in place, such as a commission or a court? Is the state required to use census data? (A few states have provisions for alternatives—not that I know of any good alternative sources yet.)
More broadly: If the states can have a unified voice before Congress on this question, what would that voice say? If you’ve got an answer to that, please let me know.
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s elections and redistricting program.