Triggered by pandemic-slowed census counts and court challenges, fluctuating voting district maps are putting state and local election officials under extraordinary pressure to prepare for elections in a shortened timeline.
With election district lines still uncertain in many states, potential candidates for state legislatures and Congress are facing challenging decisions about whether to run in districts that may not exist.
Pandemic delays already had pushed back the release of census data needed for drawing new district lines, which must be redrawn every 10 years to account for population changes. In Georgia, Maryland, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, that’s been compounded by court challenges, creating a perfect storm of election uncertainty.
Stephen Kellat of Ashtabula, Ohio, had planned to run as a Republican for a seat in the state House, hoping to build his campaign around economic opportunity in the form of expanded broadband, road repairs and waterfront improvements to draw more shipping traffic. But by the time the Feb. 2 filing deadline arrived, new district maps had cut off his home from most of his supporters in a nearby church, so he decided to forgo the race.
Courts have since overturned those maps—twice. The state redistricting commission submitted new maps March 2 that reunited Kellat with his supporters, but it was too late for him to change his mind and run. And those new maps still are subject to court approval, with a March 18 deadline looming to send early ballots to armed forces overseas.
Kellat, who describes himself as a “moderate pre-Trump Republican,” said filing as a candidate before the lines were finalized “would have been a gamble. You’d be declaring without knowing your district.”
Recognizing the challenge, Ohio said it would allow candidates’ petition signatures to count even if they came from outside a new district, as long as they were from the same county.
Farther south near Columbus, Teneah Chambers, a teacher, also faces uncertainty over her plans to run for state Senate as a Democrat. She wanted to represent rural parts of Licking County, where she says people feel ignored by the state legislature, but the new maps cut her off from that constituency, forcing her to either move or face a Democratic incumbent.
“I’m not going to move—I want to represent the people, not move somewhere else just to stay on the ballot,” Chambers said. “It’s a hot mess. They shouldn’t be knocking people off the ballot, especially people who have worked hard to get on the ballot.”
To stay on the ballot in a new district, candidates must move by March 26, according to the Ohio Secretary of State’s office. Otherwise, they will appear on the ballot in their home district, assuming they have enough signatures to qualify.
In Georgia, a federal judge cited the “significant upheaval and voter confusion” new maps would cause when he allowed challenged maps to be used for May primaries. A New York state judge also said in March he would not stop 2022 elections while Republicans challenge new maps. Republicans are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Wisconsin maps that were chosen by a state court.
The confusion also is creating problems for candidates for the U.S. House. Ohio’s deadline for filing as a candidate for Congress was March 4, two days after the latest maps were submitted for court approval.
Meanwhile, two of the most close-fought states in 2020, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, have seen multiple map changes ordered by state courts. The U.S. Supreme Court this week let the maps stand in both states for 2022 elections after Republican challenges.
“All of this is a huge pain for candidates,” said J. Miles Coleman, a political cartographer at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In North Carolina, an important U.S. House contest seemed to be taking shape several months ago in the 9th District when Charles Graham, a Democratic state representative who is the only Native American in the state legislature, opened his campaign with a viral video about a 1958 battle between his Lumbee tribe and the Ku Klux Klan. His expected November opponent: Republican incumbent Rep. Dan Bishop.
But both Bishop and Graham ended up withdrawing from the race for the 9th District under new maps: Bishop switched to the redrawn 8th District, which had part of his old constituency in Union County, after considering dropping out to run for statewide office. North Carolina does not require candidates for the U.S. House to live in the district they seek to represent.
Graham switched to the 4th District near Fayetteville in November after maps were drawn, saying in a statement that “the values we stand for are too important to squander in a gerrymandered district stacked against us—but the 4th District is a fight we could win.”
However, that district was struck down by state courts and a new court-drawn map doesn’t have any clear place for Graham to run, Coleman said. “Graham has no good options.”
Nevertheless, Graham now has filed to run in the 7th District. Ian McDermott, finance director for Graham’s campaign, said the campaign is “full speed ahead” running in the 7th District, which includes Lumberton, where the candidate owns a health care business. The district is about 56% Republican, “a tough lift” for a Democrat, Coleman said.
The fluctuating maps also are putting state and local election officials under extraordinary pressure to prepare for elections in a shortened timeline. After maps are approved, local officials must go over voter registration lists to place voters in the right districts, a time-consuming, once-a-decade task that’s now backed up even more by delays and shifting lines.
In Maryland, state and local election officials are “losing sleep right now thinking about how they’re going to deal with whatever emerges” from Republican court challenges to state maps, said Andrea Trento, an assistant attorney general speaking in court for the state board of elections. A judge moved deadlines for Maryland candidates to March 22 amid the uncertainty.
Even in some places where maps were not challenged, redistricting was a nightmare for local officials. In Shasta County, California, elections staff had to change districts for 112,000 voters—a task usually scheduled to take four months—in a two-week period ending March 1. A local recall election had to be held under old maps, and the system could not accommodate both sets of data. Supply chain issues forced a scramble for scarce envelopes to notify voters of new districts.
“It’s really been a very heavy lift,” said Shasta County Clerk Cathy Darling Allen. “Every election is a huge undertaking, and this just added a lot to our plate.”
California’s primaries were originally set for this month but were pushed back to June to account for the redistricting delays caused by the pandemic-slowed census. That left candidates with one month to decide whether to run in the newly drawn districts, compared with the seven months they had after the 2010 census, wrote Eric McGhee, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California, in a March 3, 2021, post.
"Candidates are required to file almost three months before a primary, and they need time to decide if a campaign makes sense," McGhee said. "So, the districts should be redrawn at least three months before the primary, and realistically much earlier than that.”
This article was first posted to Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.