Delays in the completion of the 2020 Census, attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic (which obviously restricted door-to-door canvassing among other problems) and attempted political manipulation of the data by the Trump administration, were inevitable. But in terms of the data supplied to state governments for the decennial readjustment of congressional and state legislative districts, the delays could have some real and hard-to-predict consequences, as the New York Times reports:
The Census Bureau has concluded that it cannot release the population figures needed for drawing new districts for state legislatures and the House of Representatives until late September, bureau officials and others said in recent interviews. That is several months beyond the usual April 1 deadline, and almost two months beyond the July 30 deadline that the agency announced last month.
Even before the latest delays, the National Conference of State Legislatures was sending up flares about the potential consequences in states with off-year elections or with strict constitutional or statutory deadlines for redistricting based on the normal schedule for receipt of Census data:
States that would have the most difficulty with delays include:
• Two states that have legislative elections scheduled in November 2021 (New Jersey and Virginia).
• Seven states with constitutional redistricting deadlines in 2021 (California, Colorado, Maine, Missouri, Ohio, South Dakota and Washington).
• Five states with statutory redistricting deadlines in 2021 (Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Vermont and Washington).
• Thirteen states with constitutions calling for redistricting in the year after the census, effectively meaning in 2021 (Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon and Wisconsin).
The delays could cut in various ways in various states, depending on the exact timing and what state laws and constitutions require. In some — particularly those like New Jersey and Virginia, with elections this year — states might simply use the old district lines one more time. In others — particularly in those with partisan redistricting systems that lend themselves to gerrymandering — the short time frame might short-circuit legislative or court challenges to lines that are drawn hastily or with limited public input. In general, notes the Times, Democrats think this situation puts them at an even greater disadvantage than before:
It remains unclear how serious the political repercussions of the delay will be, but early indications are that Democrats have more reason to worry. By [the Brennan Center for Justice’s] calculation in a report issued on Thursday, Republicans will most likely draw the maps for 181 House seats and Democrats for 49 seats, possibly rising to 74 if the New York Legislature (which is controlled by Democrats) chooses to override the state’s new independent redistricting commission …
The biggest targets for increasing one party’s share of Congress are the fast-growing Southern states of Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, where Republicans oversee the drawing of maps through control of both houses of the legislature.
All in all, the data delay makes the very complicated political and legal situation that always surrounds redistricting even more fraught with uncertainty and all sorts of partisan mischief.