The last several months have been suspenseful for avid redistricting watchers such as myself. The decennial process, which was due to begin months ago, has been plagued by delays. But the waiting is over, with the latest release of data today. But why is this data so important? I’ll be attempting to answer that with today’s installment of Between the Lines, as well as what to expect in the coming months.
How many people, and where they live
At the time of writing my last article in April, the Census Bureau had just released apportionment data. On that day we learned the total population of the United States as of Census Day 2020, and the populations of each state. State populations were then used to calculate the number of members each state would elect in the U.S. House in the next decade, starting with 2022. This was the first step in the redistricting process; once map drawers knew how many seats their state had, they then had a rough idea of how to draw the maps. But without knowing the exact populations on the local level, they could never draw official maps. This is where redistricting data comes in.
Redistricting data is more complex. As well as state population, we now know the populations of each individual census block. Census blocks are the smallest geographical unit the census uses, and there are over 11 million of them nationwide. Block populations allow for extremely precise measurements, and we can use them to calculate other populations, such as in cities, counties, and of course, electoral districts.
Under federal law, Congressional districts within states must have extremely low deviations. This is why redistricting data is necessary; without it there would be no way to know if populations within districts were equal. State legislative districts have less strict requirements, but the data is also important to have in that case.
In a nutshell, what this means is that we’ll start seeing official plans being drawn and approved very soon. And with campaigns already underway and filing deadlines coming up, states will want to be quick about it.
Sneak peek of the new maps
Despite having no official data, proposals have still come to light in some states. Illinois and Oklahoma have taken it the furthest, passing new state legislative maps into law. Oklahoma’s plans have no big changes from the current maps, where Republicans safely hold the majority in both chambers. Illinois Democrats face criticism for passing partisan gerrymanders, which will likely yield similar results to the current plans, which also considered to be gerrymanders. Without official data, they have had to rely on estimates, and they may need to be revised following the release of the data, since many districts may deviate from the ideal population beyond the legal requirement.
On the congressional level, Colorado is the only state which has proposed a plan. Colorado uses an independent commission to draw congressional and state legislative maps, and has proposed plans on every level. The plans have received mixed reviews from observers. It is unclear whether the final plans, which are due in late October, will remain similar to the proposed ones, or face significant changes.
When will we see new maps?
Very, very soon. This redistricting cycle is unlike any other, given the chaos of the last couple of years, and it has squeezed the timeframe for drawing plans very narrowly. Many states have statutory deadlines for drawing maps or early filing deadlines. All in all, state legislatures and commissions will need to do as much as they can in as little time as possible. But many states will still conduct hearings and debates before passing maps, which means we may have to wait some more. And that’s not even taking litigation into account, which I expect to play a big part in the process. It may be a while before the 50th state approves their plan, but until then we’ll have a constant flow of new maps.
This is a process which will have huge implications on elections in the next decade. Things have been fairly silent in the last few months on the redistricting front, but that’s all about to change. Redistricting will be a central topic of coverage here at Elections Daily, where I and several other writers will be covering it closely. Make sure to follow both the website and our posts on social media for up to date information.