“Census delay sends redistricting ripples nationwide.” —Roll Call
“A Delay in Census Results Would Hinder States’ Redistricting Efforts.” —NPR
“Delayed census data may push back work of state redistricting commission.” —WHSV-TV
Headlines like the ones above, which came out in recent days and weeks, conveyed the seriousness of delaying the release of census results to the states. But the Census Bureau’s announcement today that redistricting data won’t be coming until Sept. 30 raises the urgency to a whole new level.
Before today, reporters—and, more important, redistricters—knew only that the bureau would miss the April 1 deadline for providing states with the granular data needed to redraw districts and that it would arrive after July 30. That was startling; today’s news is breathtaking.
We aren’t talking about the numbers that determine how many seats in the U.S. House each state will have for the coming decade, although that data is delayed by four months, with a target date of April 30. That’s a big deal for politicos, as they prepare to divine what the changes will mean for political power in Washington.
It’s the newly announced delays for the census’ second data release that has the states’ attention. That release contains detailed data on the number of people living in each census block, the smallest piece of census geography, along with race and age characteristics for them. Decades ago, NCSL was instrumental in getting Congress to require the Census Bureau to provide this very data, known as the P.L. 94-171 file.
To be blunt: Redistricting, which is arguably the most significant act a state makes in a decade, is off track already. The wrangling—redistricting—can’t begin until the census data arrives. Each state has a firm deadline to complete redistricting, whether established in the constitution, set by statute or naturally occurring as filing deadlines for the 2022 elections approach. Losing two more months could mean trouble.
Is There an Upside?
I’m a silver-linings kind of a person, so I went looking for the upside to these delays. Here’s what I found.
• If more time means more accuracy, that’s good. We want the census data to be accurate precisely because it will be used for key government functions—namely distributing political power (through redistricting) and federal funds, to the tune of $1.5 trillion annually, for a decade. The Census Bureau is using the time provided by the delay to fix what it calls “anomalies” in the data—and given that last year included a pandemic, record wildfires, hurricanes, civil unrest and changing policy objectives, it’s no wonder the data isn’t yet tidy. Maybe waiting for accuracy is worth it, with dollars of that magnitude on the line.
Because most regular sessions this year will be over before the census data arrives, many states will need to call special sessions in the fall. That’s costly, but at least the regular session can be used for regular business: the economy, the state budget and COVID-19 relief.
• The delays mean there’s now time to complete redistricting preparations. Most redistricters—legislators in most states, commissioner in others—are new to the process. They’ve got more time to hold hearings on their state’s criteria, processes and timelines, and to learn what election officials must do in the post-redistricting, pre-primary window. The census delays are putting a time crunch on redistricters, and that’s likely to lead to a crunch for those who draw precincts and assign voters to new districts. Anything that can be done to save pain at all points along the process of preparing for the 2022 elections is a good thing.
• There’s more time for public input. Hearings, whether held in the capitol or around the state, in person or online, can give the public an opportunity to comment on what matters most, which in turn can help redistricters identify their state’s key “communities of interest.” That’s a term of art with little definition, but it refers to geographic areas where the residents share common interests. And how can redistricters know what those are without asking? Some states wait to solicit comments until they have draft maps; that makes sense too. The opportunity for the public to participate this decade is more important than ever, as redistricting has moved from an arcane activity to front-page fodder.
Similarly, there’s time now to ask legislators what their priorities are for their own districts. Not all requests can be met, of course, but knowing in advance what matters will speed the process when the data comes.
• Demographers can help lawmakers and redistricters see the future, even without new data. In Louisiana, the legislature invited the state demographer to explain where populations in the Pelican State are growing and where they’re stagnating, and how economic drivers are changing—good to know in general terms before building new electoral maps. Demographers may be able to suggest supplementary data sources beyond what the census can provide that will give a full 360-degree view of the state.
• Eager beavers can get a jump-start by drawing practice maps. When the data arrives, they’ll be quicker with the technology and have a general idea of what they’d like to see. Depending on how complete they are, when the time comes it could be just a matter of putting on the finishing touches.
• Finally, states can reconsider their deadlines—is there any room for change? A non-exhaustive list of options is offered in 5 Ways to Handle Census Delays and Redistricting Deadlines. Warning: None of the options is easy.
Wendy Underhill is the director of NCSL’s Elections and Redistricting Program.