by Leslie Kamil
Under federal law, the Census Bureau is required to report two sets of data for reapportionment:
- state apportionment numbers, which determine how many congressional seats each state is entitled to, by December 31, and
- redistricting data, known as the PL 94-171 that tells states who lives where, by March 30.
The mid-February, the Census Bureau indicated that State total population counts won’t be released until April 30, 2021, four months after its original deadline and that redistricting data will be released by September 30. All of these issues are attributed to the pandemic.
Federal law mandates 435 House seats representing 750,000 people each, meaning that states are subject to gain and lose congressional seats based on fluctuations in their population. Even states that don’t gain or lose seats still need to redraw district boundaries to account for population shifts within states, necessitating more detailed data that shows where people live down to the county, city, and finally, the smallest units of Census blocks, which are the size of individual neighborhoods.
These date changes have created angst for the political parties and its’ constituencies and placed states in difficult positions to legally and accurately complete their responsibilities. Some states have constitutional deadlines for redistricting and/or statutory filing deadlines for primaries.
Michigan’s redistricting commission will hold an open meeting at 1 PM on March 5th to discuss the conflict between when Census data will be available and constitutional deadlines.
Complicating matters, voting rights advocates have said, is that this will be the first redistricting cycle since the Supreme Court eliminated the preclearance requirement of the Voting Rights Act that required states with a history of racial discrimination to prove to the Department of Justice that their electoral maps weren’t drawn to dilute the power of voters of color. The shortened redistricting window leaves less time to challenge maps in the courts as discriminatory.
The political implications are potentially enormous! Although the Democratic Party currently controls both chambers of Congress with slim margins, as well as the White House, the Republicans control the majority of the state legislatures, where much of map drawing happens. Thus, this could decide who returns to Washington after the 2022 midterms.
The National Conference of State Legislatures last month recommended possible solutions for states with either/or a statutory or constitutional deadline for drawing their legislative or congressional districts.
- Redistricters can petition the state courts to seek relief from their statutory or constitutional redistricting deadlines (as California did last year).
- States can pass new statutes or amend their constitutions to eliminate their redistricting deadlines or create exemptions from those deadlines (as New Jersey did last year).
- States where the redistricting deadline is the filing deadline for primary elections can alter those deadlines (as Virginia has done in the past).
- States can pass new laws creating backup commissions that could be tasked with redistricting if it cannot be done by the statutory or constitutional deadline.
None of the recommendations included suing the bureau to release data earlier than it had planned. Just as the 2020 election saw a record amount of litigation over election rules, these issues may be no different.
Further follow up
On Saturday, February 27th, the Coronado Democratic Club heard a presentation by Kathay Feng, the National Redistricting Coordinator for Common Cause. Her presentation covered the history and evolution of the redistricting process, how the census impacts redistricting, and an overview of various federal and state laws which would impact voting rights, voting methods and voter turnout in 2022 and beyond.
Feng’s presentation may be seen below or accessed through the following links: