Delayed U.S. Census Bureau data a setback for state’s political remapping

By: - February 15, 2021 8:20 am

Gov. Brian Kemp and his wife Marty wore Census 2020 masks at the Capitol in September to promote census participation. The pandemic has put the Census Bureau months behind schedule, which could create hiccups creating districts for the 2022 election in Georgia. Ross Williams/Georgia Recorder

The demographic data lawmakers use to redraw Georgia’s Congressional and legislative districts will be delayed this year because of COVID-19, and what the once-a-decade remapping will look like is anyone’s guess.

The U.S. Census Bureau announced Friday it won’t release the population data states need to create their new boundaries and distribute billions of federal money until Sept. 30 — six months later than that data is typically made available.

The constraints created by the COVID-19 pandemic and mixed signals from the federal government led to an unusually difficult census-taking the past year, and the delay is necessary to make sure the numbers are correct, the bureau said.

The borders of Georgia’s 14 Congressional Districts and 236 state House and Senate districts are created by the state Legislature. The districts must contain an equal number of people, so lawmakers need the documents outlining how many people live in each census tract in the state.

Typically, the state Legislature handles redistricting in a special session in August, which the calendar crunch will not allow this year.

Even with a delayed timeline, changes can be made before Georgians vote in 2022, said Gina Wright, executive director of the Georgia Office of Legislative and Congressional Reapportionment.

“Primaries are in May, qualifying is in March, but I think when redistricting cycles have happened, I think they have been able to push some of qualifying back because of that, but it would still be in that March, April timeframe,” she said. “So I think the timing of the maps, whenever they get adopted, should not affect that, but of course there’s always the unexpected.”

Unlike most other states, Georgia does not have a deadline in its constitution or state code for drawing districts, but a delay could still mean difficulties for the 2022 election and beyond, said Ken Lawler, executive director of the non-partisan anti-gerrymandering group Fair Districts.

“We are tearing our hair out over this problem, as the Legislature is, I’m sure,” Lawler said.

One big problem is that candidates will need to know their home district at least a year before they are elected, and the 2022 election is Nov. 8.

“I think the Legislature would like to have the maps finished by early November, so that especially every sitting legislator can say, ‘OK, that district that I now live in, I’ll run again,’ or they can look and say, ‘The lines of my district have been redrawn so that now I am paired with somebody else in the same district, so we’re going to have to fight it out.’”

In addition, a shortened season will mean less time for input on proposed maps. Legislators will not be able to bring maps to public hearings in the districts and get public input, which usually happens in the summer.

“It’s a process that allows you to define why your community is what it is, maybe it’s you’re Vidalia onion growers and you want to be represented cohesively, or you are the city of Statesboro and that city wants to be represented as a whole, not broken up into districts,” he said.

In the past, maps were released to the public only one or two business days prior to a public hearing and vote by the House and Senate committees, Lawler said.

“We are actually asking for more time this year, ideally two weeks, to examine the maps in detail and allow communities across the state to comment,” he said. “Given that these maps govern our elections for the next 10 years, we believe that time is appropriate. Obviously the Legislature will be on a compressed timeframe this year, putting this at risk.”

Georgia is listed as one of four states most at-risk of partisan gerrymandering in a report released this month by the Brennan Center for Justice. Factors contributing to that include single-party control of the process in a state with fast population growth and demographic change. And unless Congress acts to pass a new Voting Rights Act, Georgia will not be required to obtain federal preclearance to make changes.

A court challenge to the district lines this year could compound challenges moving forward, Lawler said.

The nightmare scenario would be a delay going past March leading the 2022 election to be held with maps designed from the 2010 census, when Georgia’s population was about 10% smaller, Lawler said.

“We know that the population shifts in Georgia are from the rural communities into metro Atlanta and the metro communities, so the whole political landscape has shifted,” he said. “You do not want to be running an election on 12-year-old maps.”

A legal challenge is likely, said University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, and that may mean the 2022 map is used once and thrown away.

“What undoubtedly will happen is that probably Democrats will go to court to challenge it,” he said. “My guess is they’re not going to be happy with the kind of maps that Republicans are going to come up with. So what could happen is by the time they file suit, it could be tied up in court to the point where they say, ‘We’re going to use these maps that have been drawn for 2022, but you’re going to have to draw new maps for 2024.’ So it’s possible that we’ll see two rounds of redistricting. That’s happened before in Georgia in the early 1970s.”

State legislators will work to ensure the public’s voice is heard, said state Rep. Dar’shun Kendrick of Atlanta, who sits on the House Democratic Caucus Reapportionment Committee.

“It might be more intense during that shorter period of time, as they won’t be able to do a tour like they did last redistricting, where they went to every corner of Georgia,” she said, “but obviously depending on where we are in terms of COVID, there are still ways to get out information when the maps are released.”

Georgia expected to keep 14 seats in Congress

The Census Bureau was scheduled to detail by the end of December 2020 how many congressional seats will go to each state. That announcement is six weeks late, and now isn’t expected until late April of this year.

Georgia is not expected to gain or lose a congressional seat, but 17 other states could, according to a projection by Kimball Brace, a D.C.-based redistricting consultant.

In an analysis Brace released in December, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, Florida, and Texas could gain House seats.

Among those projected to lose House seats were Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

“It is still uncertain how well the Trump administration and the Census Bureau conducted this year’s census, so the final apportionment numbers will be closely watched for any indications of problems,” Brace said in his analysis.

In their news release announcing the new date for releasing the detailed population data used in redistricting, the Census Bureau said staffers have contacted state officials “to understand the impacts of the delayed delivery.”

States Newsroom Washington correspondent contributed to this report.

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Ross Williams
Ross Williams

Before joining the Georgia Recorder, Ross Williams covered local and state government for the Marietta Daily Journal. His work earned recognition from the Georgia Associated Press Media Editors and the Georgia Press Association, including beat reporting, business writing and non-deadline reporting.