WASHINGTON — Census Bureau officials said Friday they plan to release redistricting data to states by Sept. 30, five months later than originally planned, due to delays caused by the pandemic.
Redistricting data files are used to redraw congressional district lines once reapportionment — determining if states gain or lose seats in the U.S. House of Representatives — is complete. The delay foreshadows trouble for states with elections or redistricting deadlines set in 2021, as it eliminates much of the time typically used to contest and resolve the redistricting.
The Bureau plans to release the redistricting data to all states at the same time. Historically, that data was released on a rolling basis, starting six weeks before the deadline.
In a news conference, Census Redistricting & Voting Rights Data Office Chief James Whitehorne said, “We’ve looked extensively at putting together a schedule that’s going to allow us to maintain the accuracy and quality of the data that’s expected from the decennial census. We’ve provided time to address any anomalies that we encounter along the way. We’ve taken lessons learned from what we are processing so far, and we’re essentially working to make sure that this data will be fit for the use that it’s intended.”
The new timeline comes weeks after the Bureau said April 30 is the new date for sending population totals and apportionment counts to the Commerce secretary. The coronavirus pandemic, anomalies in the data and litigation over the processing all contributed to the delays.
Releasing the redistricting data in September may cause problems for over half of states. Two, Virginia and New Jersey, have scheduled elections this year. New Jersey voters ratified an amendment in 2020 to push the redistricting timeline depending on whether census data was delivered before or after Feb. 15. It is unclear how Virginia elections will address the delay.
“We understand why the census has delays and yet those delays put a great deal of pressure on the redistricters in all 50 states to be able to meet the election timelines that we expect,” said Wendy Underhill, the director of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ Elections and Redistricting Program.
Twenty-five states have constitutional or statutory redistricting deadlines in 2021 ahead of the midterm elections in 2022. According to Underhill, candidate filing could be a concern with the delay of the data. Candidates need to be clear on which district they plan on running in and, depending on the state, candidates may need to have lived in the district they’re running in for a certain amount of time.
“A lot of thought was put into creating this schedule, and we are consistently aware of the urgency of the needs of the states to have this data,” Whitehorne said. “We feel like we have a strong schedule that reflects the time that we need.”