After over a year of issues in conducting the census, it looks like the finalization of numbers may take months. The Census Bureau announced that they won’t be releasing the data needed for states to draw plans until September, a whole six months later than originally planned. This brings a lot of potential problems for state and federal governments to deal with, with regard to redistricting.
In this week’s installment of “Between the Lines”, I’ll be reviewing the situation, accompanying problems, and possible solutions. Due to its importance, I’ll be dedicating this installment entirely to the recent news. Which means that my analysis of states losing seats will be in the next piece, so look out for that.
Redistricting Data Delayed, Again
The conducting of the census has by no means been easy. These hurdles are partly due to the pandemic, partly due to actions by the Trump administration. Previously the bureau mentioned July 31 as the earliest possible date of release for redistricting data. Now, it appears they have set the date at September 31. July would have caused problems, but September throws everything completely out of whack. Normally we would have expected most states to have drawn their districts by that point, but now it’s anybody’s guess what will happen.
As the window for drawing maps gets more and more narrow, all eyes will be on the courts. Some state courts, such as in California, have extended the deadlines for submitting plans, and many more may follow. Furthermore, we may expect delays in filing deadlines and primaries. It’s likely that we will see fewer early primaries, and more in late summer and early fall.
Fair Maps, or Unfair and Rushed?
In my last piece I touched upon the deadlines that states have to draw their new maps. Because of the shorter timeframe for drawing maps, many states may not come to an agreement on new plans. This means that we may see more involvement from backup commissions, state courts, and maybe even federal courts. Overall, handing over the authority to draw congressional maps to courts and commissions makes it much less likely for states to have gerrymanders in place. This would, by and large, give the fair maps lobby a big victory.
But not all is rosy in the fight for fairness. As observers have pointed out, looming deadlines may force many state legislatures to rush the process and pass plans within a few weeks. This may sound convenient, but it’s anything but. A late release of data will give states less time to conduct public hearings, which would restrict legislatures from drawing maps that are better representative of the people.
But this fiasco is, in my opinion, completely avoidable. By starting procedures as early as possible, lawmakers could gather the information they need before drawing the maps. They could even draw maps based on population estimates, which would give them a very good idea on what the final maps may look like. These actions would sufficiently prepare the states for the release of the final data, which could allow them to draw the final maps within days. Many states seem to be following this guide, such as Arizona, Michigan and other states, many with independent commissions.
Could the 2022 Elections be Held Using the Same Lines?
Short answer: still unlikely, but it’s on the table. This action would not completely be without precedent. In 1920, the census was conducted as usual, but because Congress had failed to pass an apportionment plan, no reapportionment occurred, and districts remained almost identical from 1913 to 1933. This was despite the constitutional requirement of apportioning House seats every decade. If reapportionment could be held back for something that benign, for a whole decade, I have no reason to doubt that it can be pushed back two years because of a pandemic.
So we’ve established that it probably can be done, but will it be done?, Such an action would need the approval of either Congress or the courts. The courts would likely only allow it as a last resort, and if the demand for it existed in enough states. Otherwise they may choose to give states relief in the form of extended deadlines and delayed primaries. Congress, on the other hand, may feel less tied down. If congressional Democrats allowed it, this would give them time to pass a law preventing gerrymandering, which would benefit them politically. But if they attempt this, the power of Congress to make such a move would likely be subject to heavy debate and litigation. So in that case it may again end up in the courts.
For redistricting to be delayed by two years, expect something drastic to happen sometime in the next few months. As of now, we’re still not there.
The news of the last couple of weeks have shown that the chaos of the census is not yet over. But we have some dates to look forward to now, so mark April 1 and September 31 on your calendars.
I hope you found this article useful. Unless any major newsworthy events happen from now until then, I’ll be discussing the states losing seats in my next piece, as promised. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave a comment, email me, or send me a direct message on Twitter.