Census data delay disrupts state redistricting plans

When the Census Bureau announced that the data states use for redistricting would be delayed, many states plans were thrown for a loop.

Between complications caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, new technology to protect privacy and security and the Trump administration’s shifting deadlines, the release of the redistricting data will delayed until Sept. 30. That data includes the details on race, ethnicity, voting age, housing occupancy status at the census block level – all of which plays into the redistricting decisions that will most immediately impact the 2022 primary elections.  

Census now plans to release all states’ data at once, rather than via a staggered delivery, which officials said would ensure delivery of “the high-quality fit-for-use data products the states need for redistricting.” 

The delay will have “a major impact on the timing of redistricting at the federal, state, and local levels," a spokesperson for Massachusetts Secretary of State William Galvin told the State House News Service. "If that is the price we have to pay for accuracy, however, then we believe it is worth it."

The commonwealth can do some of the prep work with data available from the American Community Survey, state Sen. Will Brownsberger told the news outlet. "We have a pretty good idea of what the district changes are going to be … and then when the real data comes out late in September we'll be in a position to move forward quickly," he said.

Colorado faces a timing challenge many states are staring down. The data needed for redistricting will be delivered after constitutional deadlines for changes are due. Colorado’s congressional and legislative redistricting commissions, which are still in the process of being selected, must draw new maps by Sept. 1 and Sept. 15 respectively, according to the Durango Herald.

“This will be one of the first things for the commissions to tackle once they convene,” Jessika Shipley, a nonpartisan staff member leading the redistricting effort, told the Herald. “We’re going to try to do all of our research in the coming weeks to give them as much information as possible so they are well informed and can make a plan to go forward.”

Transparency advocates in Pennsylvania say that accelerating the redistricting process could make it less transparent, according to Spotlight PA.  Lawmakers could use the delay as an excuse to limit transparency and public input, which has been minimal in previous decades, Carol Kuniholm, chairperson of Fair Districts PA, a nonprofit group advocating for redistricting reform, told the news outlet.

In California, the raw census data must be run through the University of California at Berkeley’s Statewide Database before preliminary maps can be drawn. Those maps are reviewed at public hearings, and then each of the state’s 120 legislative districts, four Board of Equalization districts and an unknown number of congressional districts must approve the changes.

Besides coping with a shorter timeline, California and Pennsylvania both are likely to lose congressional seats due to declines in population growth, making decisions on redistricting more politically charged.

Even before the Census Bureau announced the Sept. 30 data delivery date, Ben Williams, a policy specialist with the National Council of State Legislators’ Elections and Redistricting Program offered some solutions:

  • Ask courts for a redistricting deadline extension, like California
  • Change the law to circumvent the deadline or create exemptions, like New Jersey
  • Alter primary election filing deadlines or election dates, like Virginia has done.
  • Turn redistricting into a two-step process, using the best data available and understanding that changes will need to be made later.
  • Pass laws creating backup mechanisms to existing processes.

“We are acutely aware of the difficulties that this delayed delivery of the redistricting data will cause some states. Some states have statutory or even state constitutional deadlines and processes that they will have to address due to this delay,” Bureau officials said.

Meanwhile, Census said it has delivered the 2020 Census Redistricting Data Geographic Support Products, or shapefiles, that contain geographic entity codes that can be linked to the Census Bureau’s demographic data, when that becomes available.

About the Author

Susan Miller is executive editor at GCN.

Over a career spent in tech media, Miller has worked in editorial, print production and online, starting on the copy desk at IDG’s ComputerWorld, moving to print production for Federal Computer Week and later helping launch websites and email newsletter delivery for FCW. After a turn at Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology, where she worked to promote technology-based economic development, she rejoined what was to become 1105 Media in 2004, eventually managing content and production for all the company's government-focused websites. Miller shifted back to editorial in 2012, when she began working with GCN.

Miller has a BA and MA from West Chester University and did Ph.D. work in English at the University of Delaware.

Connect with Susan at [email protected] or @sjaymiller.


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