Another delay in critical census data threatens redistricting

By: - February 12, 2021 2:13 pm
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A newly announced delay in the census data states rely on to draw new congressional and legislative districts seems certain to push back the work of the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which could leave Arizonans and the candidates they’ll be voting for waiting until after the new year to find out what districts they’ll be in.

Officials at the U.S. Census Bureau officials say the population data that states need for redistricting isn’t expected to be available until late September. This marks the second delay in releasing the data, which officials last month said wouldn’t be ready until at least July 30. The data was originally supposed to be ready for states by the beginning of April.

Federal law requires the Census Bureau to have that information ready by March 31. But the COVID-19 pandemic and interference by the Trump administration have now pushed back that deadline twice.

“That’s a problem for the state,” said David Mehl, a Republican member of the redistricting commission. 

The previous delay would have likely pushed back the redistricting commission’s work slightly, but still left it on pace to approve its final maps along the same timeline as its predecessor a decade ago. The new delay, however, could be far more problematic.

In 2011, the last AIRC approved its initial “grid maps,” the starting point mandated by the Arizona Constitution for the district maps it will eventually draw, in mid-August. Its predecessor in 2001 completed its grid maps in mid-July.

If the newly empaneled commission doesn’t get the population data it needs until the end of September, it likely won’t finish its grid maps until sometime in October. By way of comparison, the last AIRC in 2011 approved the initial draft of its congressional district map on Oct. 3, and its initial legislative map a week later. The commission approved the final versions of both maps on Dec. 20.

Moving at the same pace, the current commission would approve its final maps sometime around the middle of February.

That could be a major problem for legislative and congressional candidates in next year’s elections. In order to qualify for the Aug. 2, 2022 primary election, candidates must convince enough voters to sign their nominating petitions, which are due by April 4 of next year. 

Though Sen. J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, has sponsored legislation allowing candidates to qualify by collecting signatures in either their old or new districts — common practice during redistricting years — candidates may have to make important decisions on where and whether to run before they even know what the final versions of their districts look like.

That could result in congressional and legislative hopefuls collecting signatures and campaigning for months, only to find out that they’re in unfavorable districts where they stand little chance of winning. A number of candidates have already filed statements of interest for legislative and congressional races with the Secretary of State’s Office, which allows them to begin collecting signatures.

Dave Wasserman, a redistricting expert who writes for the Cook Political Report, speculated that the delay could also increase the chances that courts will have to draw the maps in some states. Because of population changes, states can’t reuse their old maps, and if legislatures or redistricting commissions can’t finish their work on time, courts have stepped in to finish the job in the past.

That happened with Arizona’s congressional map in 1992, the last time the state legislature drew the maps before voters created the AIRC. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives and the Democratic-controlled Senate couldn’t reach an agreement on a congressional map, forcing a panel of three federal judges to take up the work instead.

Shereen Lerner, a Democratic AIRC commissioner, said the commission will have to discuss the new delay at its Feb. 16 meeting. She said the commission is moving at a good pace — it’s ahead of schedule compared to its 2011 predecessor when it comes to key staffing decisions that are on the horizon — and that the AIRC will have to try to get as much other work done beforehand while it waits for the population data.

Secretary of State Katie Hobbs has concerns as well.

“Since it could further delay finalizing the new congressional and legislative maps for the 2022 election, the Secretary of State’s Office is very concerned IRC may not be able to complete new maps by the candidate filing window in 2022, which may have further impacts on subsequent election deadlines, including potentially ballot printing for the Primary Election,” said Murphy Hebert, a spokeswoman for Hobbs.

Democratic Commissioner Derrick Watchman found a potential silver lining in the delay. 

Before the commission begins drawing district lines, it holds meetings across the state to get public input on the redistricting process. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the AIRC may have to wait a while before it can actually hold public meetings. But by September, if not sooner, Watchman hopes the pandemic will have abated to the point where the commission can meet with members of the public across Arizona.

“I’m trying to put a positive spin on this. By September, I’m certain we’ll be able to get out into the communities, because I really want to get outside of Phoenix and Flagstaff and Tucson. We’ve got 22 tribes here in the state and many different communities. So, I would like to go out and hear from the public,” he said.

One advantage the current commission will have over its predecessors when it comes to the timeline is that Arizona is no longer subject to a requirement in the federal Voting Rights Act that required the U.S. Department of Justice to “preclear” all changes to voting and election laws, including new district maps. In previous years, that requirement meant that even after the IRC or the legislature approved its final maps, the possibility still lingered that the Justice Department could force changes.

The delay in the population data won’t push back the Census Bureau’s announcement on apportionment, when states find out how many congressional districts they’ll have based on changes in their population during the previous decade. The bureau said it still expects to have its final population counts ready by April 30. Arizona, with a population that jumped from under 6.7 million in 2010 to more than 7.4 million last year, is expected to gain a 10th seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Associate Editor Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Prior to joining the Arizona Mirror, he worked at the Arizona Capitol Times, where he spent eight years covering the Governor's Office and two years as editor of the Yellow Sheet Report. Before that, he wrote for the Hobbs News-Sun of Hobbs, NM, and the Daily Herald of Provo, Utah. Jeremy is also the author of the history book “If This Be Treason: the American Rogues and Rebels Who Walked the Line Between Dissent and Betrayal.”

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