By Ben Williams
With the Census Bureau’s field operations delayed for months by COVID-19, thus pushing back the release of census operations (if Congress grants the bureau’s request), states dependent on census data are strategizing on how to mitigate the expected delays’ negative impacts.
Perhaps the most pressing concern is redistricting: Many states have statutory or constitutional deadlines for redistricting that are based on the usual schedule, which means on or before March 31, 2021. With the delays, these deadlines may be all but impossible to meet. For the two states scheduled to hold legislative elections in 2021—Virginia and New Jersey—the problem is even more acute.
While the universe of possible policy options is still developing, three strategies are emerging:
- Pass a new statute or constitutional amendment to adjust the redistricting deadline, either permanently or for only the upcoming cycle.
- File a petition in state court seeking relief from the statutory or constitutional deadlines in light of these unique circumstances.
- Take administrative steps to complete as much of the redistricting process before the receipt of census data, to offset the delay’s impacts and finish on time.
New Jersey and California have taken steps aimed at mitigating the expected delays.
Legislators in Trenton are considering an amendment to the state’s constitution to delay redistricting whenever the Census Bureau fails to deliver its data by mid-February. If passed by the legislature, it would need to be approved by voters this November.
California’s legislature, meanwhile, filed a petition at the state’s Supreme Court seeking relief from its own redistricting deadlines. The proposed census delays would make it impossible for the commission to comply with deadlines in the state’s constitution. In a unanimous opinion, the court—for this cycle only—pushed back all constitutional deadlines in the redistricting process by at least four months. If the bureau’s operations are further delayed, the state’s redistricting deadlines will automatically adjust to match those timelines. The legislature’s request had support from the commission itself, the director of the state’s redistricting database and outside good-government groups.
NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program is ready to assist legislators and legislative staffers as they navigate this time-sensitive issue. Feel free to reach out to us by phone or email if we can be of assistance.
Ben Williams is a policy specialist in NCSL's Elections and Redistricting Program.