The U.S. Census Bureau will delay final delivery of population data that states need to begin rebalancing political district boundaries until late September, putting substantial pressure on state legislatures and commissions that will now have far less time to tackle the decennial redistricting process.
The bureau said in a statement Friday it would not deliver final data on September 30, six months after the originally planned delivery date of March 31 and two months after an initial delay census officials announced just last month.
In a blog post, James Whitehorne, chief of the Census Bureau’s redistricting and voting rights data office, said the delay would allow his office to deliver “high-quality fit-for-use data products the states need for redistricting.” He said a decision to release all the data at once at the end of September would mean some states that might otherwise get late data receive their figures as early as possible.
“We are acutely aware of the difficulties that this delayed delivery of the redistricting data will cause some states,” Whitehorne wrote.
The decennial census was conducted under the extraordinary pressures of a global pandemic that reduced the bureau’s ability to send canvassers into the field. At the same time, an attempt by the Trump administration to add a question about citizenship led to a lengthy court fight, and other delays have further hampered efforts to complete data the bureau needs to deliver final counts.
Every decade, states must rush to draw new political boundaries to account for population shifts within their borders, an already messy process that takes months to perfect. But losing six months will mean states will come under even greater pressure to produce boundaries — or at least provide early hints at their thinking — ahead of the 2022 midterm election.
The delay is a worrying sign for both House Democrats and Republicans, who are scrambling to recruit candidates in swing districts. Those candidates cannot always be certain of what district their homes will be drawn into, though most states allow candidates to run in districts in which they do not live.
“The census delay will create a rush on antacid because there will be a lot of heartburn,” said Michael McDonald, a political scientist and census expert at the University of Florida. “This is like a pileup of cars on a freeway. When the census data is delayed, that forces other delays.”
The delay has already caused one state scheduled to hold legislative elections this year, New Jersey, to push back state legislative remapping until the 2023 elections. Virginia, the other state with legislative elections up this year, is likely to follow in pushing back their redistricting.
Dominos will continue to fall in the months ahead as states revisit the rest of their election calendars, all of which depend on district lines being finalized.
“Primary election dates may need to be moved if new districts are not in place by the deadlines for candidates to file their nomination papers for primary elections. Where candidates need to obtain signatures to qualify for the primary ballot, they may not be able to begin that process until the new lines are in place,” McDonald said.
Other states are likely to face headaches, too. Illinois has a state constitutional deadline by which it must approve new maps. If legislators there cannot meet that deadline because of the delay, they will likely need to ask a federal court to overrule their own state constitution.
But redistricting experts said the courts are likely to be open to delays, because the alternative gives the courts themselves the power to draw new lines.
“I think the courts will be quite receptive. Courts hate redistricting,” said Justin Leavitt, a constitutional law professor and redistricting expert at Loyola Law School. “They don’t mind adjudicating cases, but they really don’t want to do it themselves.”
The late figures are also likely to put a squeeze on the inevitable court challenges that occur after every remapping process. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2019 reduced the role of federal courts in adjudicating redistricting disputes, though several state Supreme Courts in places like Pennsylvania and North Carolina have more willingly involved themselves.
“States may use it as an excuse to cut off public participation and to limit the time people have to challenge the maps in court. Because a key part of winning good maps in many states like Texas is going to court,” said Michael Li, a redistricting expert and senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “It makes redistricting challenging, but the genesis of it is a good reason. There still are lots of things that states can do to have a robust redistricting process.”
In a statement, former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderWith extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one The Memo: Democrats may rue pursuit of Bannon Ben Affleck, Tracee Ellis Ross join anti-gerrymandering fundraiser with Clinton, Holder MORE, who now oversees the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, warned states against holding midterm elections under old maps.
“No state should use this new timeline as a pretext to hold 2022 elections on old maps because they think it would be politically advantageous or as an excuse for drawing maps in secret with no public input. I will oppose any such efforts,” Holder said.
There is an upside to the late counts, Leavitt said. The Census Bureau’s population figures are used to dole out trillions of federal dollars over the decade as well as the congressional representation each state gets. Getting an accurate count a little bit late is preferable to an incorrect count that is delivered more quickly.
“You’d rather have the results be correct than quick, and I think what this means is an attempt by the Census Bureau to make sure the results are as accurate as they can be,” Leavitt said. “Sometimes dotting i’s and crossing t’s takes some extra time.”