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Census data for redistricting will be available earlier than projected

By: - March 19, 2021 3:19 pm
Arizona redistricting flag

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The Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission won’t have to wait as long as expected for the census data it needs to redraw the state’s legislative and congressional districts.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced on Thursday that the data states need for redistricting will be available in mid-to-late August, the Associated Press reported. Delays caused by the pandemic previously led the bureau to move the target date from the federally mandated deadline at the end of March to late July and then again to the end of September, making it likely that the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission wouldn’t be able to complete its draft maps until December or later.

However, there’s a catch: The data will be available in an outdated format that will be difficult for some states to use. 

“Given the difficulty in using data in this format, any state using this data would have to accept responsibility for how they process these files, whether correctly or incorrectly,” James Whitehorne, the head of the Census Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office at the bureau, said in a recent court filing, according to the AP.

Doug Johnson, president of National Demographics Corporation, which was the mapping consultant for Arizona’s first redistricting commission in 2001, said the data’s format won’t be old or archaic as much as it will simply be “in a very raw format.”

The census data that states use for redistricting is broken down into blocks, which are roughly equivalent to city blocks, and those form tracts of 2,000 to 4,000 people, Johnson said. When states receive the data from the Census Bureau, usually it’s already “nicely tabulated” into tracts, cities and other geographic units, which makes it easier to use. When moving a small or medium-sized city from one district to another, Johnson said, that allows mapmakers to move the entire city at once instead of moving each individual block, one by one.

“Often when you’re drawing lines, you don’t want to deal with hundreds of thousands of census blocks. You want to deal with a couple thousand tracks until you have to get down to the nitty-gritty. So, you have to build all this data up in order to use it,” Johnson told the Arizona Mirror.

But the data that the Census Bureau expects to provide to states in August won’t be tabulated into larger units, so states, redistricting commissions and others that use it to draw new district boundaries will have to do that themselves. 

Johnson said that shouldn’t be much of a problem, though.

“Database programmers and computer programmers can certainly deal with it. It’s just a matter of work,” he said. 

The earlier the AIRC can complete at least its draft maps, if not its final maps, the better off legislative and congressional candidates will be. For now, many elected officials and prospective candidates must make decisions without knowing what districts they’ll be in or whether those districts will be favorable to them.

For example, Democratic Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, who represents the Tucson-based 2nd Congressional District, recently announced that she is retiring. Several Democrats are eying her seat, and one, state Sen. Kirsten Engel, has already announced her candidacy

Because the redistricting commission must start from scratch when it draws new districts, rather than simply adjusting the current boundaries, it’s extremely difficult to anticipate what the new lines will look like. The current district, which is among the most competitive in the country, could become much more conservative or liberal, worsening the prospects for hopeful Democrats or Republicans who have their eyes on Kirkpatrick’s seat.

Regardless of when the census data becomes available, it will be months before the AIRC can begin its mapmaking work. The commission on Tuesday selected an executive director, its first hire, and still must choose legal counsel, consultants and other personnel before it can start drawing lines.

The 2001 redistricting commission released its “grid maps” — the constitutionally mandated starting point for legislative and congressional maps — in mid-July, and the 2011 commission unveiled its grid maps in mid-August, approving the first draft of its congressional map in early October.

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Jeremy Duda
Jeremy Duda

Jeremy Duda is a Phoenix native and began his career in journalism in 2003 after graduating from the University of Arizona. Jeremy Duda previously served as the Mirror's associate Editor. 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.”