Census delay could affect 2021 redistricting




Image from Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission

If Congress approves the U.S. Census Bureau’s request to delay the upcoming Census due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, it could take longer for the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission to craft the next iteration of the state’s legislative and congressional maps.

That means it could take longer for prospective candidates, political parties, independent expenditure campaigns and others to get critical information they’ll need to decide whether to run for office, where to run and where to spend their money.

If Congress grants the Trump administration’s request, the Census Bureau would see a four-month lag in its reporting of the population data used for reapportionment and redistricting. Congress wouldn’t receive the information it uses for reapportionment –  the reallocation of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives based on states’ populations – until April 2021. And states wouldn’t receive the data they need to redraw legislative and congressional districts until as late as July 31 of next year.

The last redistricting commission, which drew the maps currently in use, didn’t choose a mapping consultant until late June 2011, meaning the new Census data might still get to the Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission before it chooses its consultants, or at least not long after.

But Ray Bladine, who served as executive director of the last redistricting commission, said that could still be a problem. Although the commission didn’t choose its consultant, Strategic Telemetry, until late June, all of the consulting firms that applied for the job began crunching numbers well before the commission awarded the contract. 

With a four-month delay, the next commission’s consultant may not get the same head start.

“If you couldn’t really start all that until after July, that could be a problem,” Bladine said.

The information that the Census provides to states includes not only the raw population numbers that the IRC will need to ensure that its districts have roughly equal populations, but also things like voter registration data that will determine a district’s partisan leanings and demographic data needed to ensure that Arizona complies with the Voting Rights Act.

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The Arizona Constitution doesn’t provide any deadlines for when the commission must complete its work. For practical purposes, the districts must be completed in time not only for candidates who are running for office to make use of the information, but also for political parties, outside groups and others who may want to wait for the final boundaries before making key campaign decisions.

Arizona holds its primary election in early August and candidates must submit the signatures they collect to qualify for the ballot by early April. In previous redistricting cycles, the legislature has allowed candidates to collect signatures in both their pre-existing districts and their new districts, which allows them to collect signatures before they know the exact boundaries. 

But without knowing the exact contours of their new districts, some candidates won’t be able to decide whether they actually want to run. A Democrat may not want to run in a heavily Republican district, or vice versa. Unlike congressional candidates, who can run in any district in the state, legislative hopefuls must live in the district they hope to represent.

“People that are going to run in that election want to know what district they’re in (more than) a month or two months before the election,” Bladine said.

The terms for the commission’s five members begins on Feb. 28 of next year, and any vacancies must be filled by March 1.

In the last redistricting, the commission approved its draft maps in October 2011. But those maps are subject to change based on input from the public and other considerations. The last commission didn’t approve its final maps until December of that year.

However, the presumption that a delay in the Census will also delay redistricting is not universally shared. Mapping consultant Tony Sissons, who worked on redistricting in 1991-92, the last time the legislature drew the lines, doubted that a four-month delay in the Census would make much of a difference.

Sissons said the last two redistricting commissions have “worked to fill the time available,” and believes the next commission can speed up the process if need be.

“Maybe the people that are involved in it are going to think it’s a real problem. I don’t see it as being a problem. They just need to get off their asses and work faster,” Sissons said.

Arizona is widely expected to gain a tenth seat in the House of Representatives. Arizona’s population has grown by nearly 900,000 people since the 2010 Census, with a projected population of about 7.3 million.