Delays to the release of 2020 census data are upending the already fraught once-a-decade process of redrawing political maps, and experts warn that could prompt a more rushed, opaque process in some states.
The census data will shape political power over the course of the next decade. Communities of color have much at stake: Latino, Black and Asian American voters make up 80% of the country’s increase in eligible voters since 2011, according to a projection in a report on redistricting the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law issued this month.
Taking the time to ensure the data is as accurate as possible is the right thing to do, said Michael Li, senior counsel at the Brennan Center and the author of the report. But the holdup “does open the door to redistricting abuses because the data will come out so late,” he added. He’s especially concerned about abuse in states with single-party control of redistricting.
States use the census data to redraw the lines for thousands of state legislative seats and other offices, as well as for congressional districts. The U.S. Census Bureau ran into pandemic-related complications, setting back delivery of the data by months, and is now promising states will have it by Sept. 30. That means many states are at risk of missing deadlines to draw new maps that are set in state constitutions or state law, and the slowdown could affect 2022 elections.
Some states have already taken action. New Jersey, for example, is one of two with state elections this year, and voters in November approved a constitutional amendment allowing use of the current maps if necessary. And last summer, in response to an emergency petition from the legislature, California’s Supreme Court granted a four-month extension of that state’s deadline.
But watchdogs are worried that the delays in some cases will mean maps drawn with less public input and scant time to litigate before elections.
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“State legislatures that already have very little incentive to make the process public and include people from traditionally marginalized communities are now going to have the additional excuse that they’re trying to meet a tight time frame,” said Kathay Feng, the national redistricting director for Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit.
Feng said Common Cause is working with community organizations to prepare ahead of the data release. They’re also warning them to “be on guard for midnight redistricting sessions” once the data comes out, she said.
In the Brennan Center report, Li highlighted reforms in some places but pointed to Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina as the states at the greatest risk of gerrymandering or unfair maps. Republicans have sole control of the process in all four states, he said, and all are experiencing rapid growth and demographic change.
“The delay means there will be less time to challenge maps in court and win changes,” Li said.
There’s another wildcard at play: Congress. A wide-ranging legislative package backed by congressional Democrats and known colloquially as H.R. 1 includes some provisions relevant to redistricting, including a ban on partisan gerrymandering. As the bill is currently written, those provisions wouldn’t apply to this redistricting cycle. But with control of Congress at stake, Li said there’s a chance that could change. “There’s an incentive to get it done,” he said, “but of course that’s a lot of lift.”