‘This weird limbo’
State legislators find themselves in a holding pattern as Census delays push back redistricting
Hiccups with the 2020 census data have cast uncertainty on the political careers of many legislators at the state and national level. Iowa state Sen. Jeff Taylor, a Republican from Sioux Center, has two Senate colleagues who live within a mile of each other.
He says that as they work together, they know they might end up in the same district after officials redraw the state Senate boundaries. “So, it’s all a little bit unsettling,” Taylor said.
The U.S. Census Bureau announced it will not deliver local population data to the states until Sept. 30, almost six months after its original deadline. States use the data to redraw the boundaries of legislative districts to match population shifts over the past 10 years. If states cannot meet their constitutional deadlines for redistricting, the holdup might push back primaries and even delay midterm elections.
“Normally people have a year to know where districts are going to be and if they’ll be running against a colleague,” said Iowa Rep. Amy Nielsen of Johnson County. “Everybody is in this weird limbo.”
The COVID-19 pandemic and court cases related to data collection delayed the gathering of census information. The redistricting of legislative and congressional seats typically begins in the first quarter of the year after a census. Current law requires the bureau to deliver the data by April 1.
The redistricting process differs by state, but most assign the task to a group of legislators or an independent commission. In Iowa, the independent Legislative Services Agency presents a redistricting proposal for approval by the legislature in an effort to keep the process fair. Iowa’s regular legislative session will finish before July 31, two months before the bureau delivers the data, forcing legislators to meet for a special session later on.
“We would be breaking the state law, specifically the Constitution, if we don’t get it done before Sept. 1. But you can’t really approve a plan if it’s not based on the actual data,” said Taylor, who is also a political science professor at Dordt University.
In Texas, the legislature will hold a special session to address the census delay between mid-October and mid-November. The state is scheduled to hold its primaries in March 2022, one of the nation’s earliest primary dates. “If we don’t hit that deadline, the plan is to delay everything by a month,” said Mark Jones, a political science professor at Rice University.
Seven state constitutions require states to complete redistricting the year after the census. The California Supreme Court extended its constitutional deadline by four months. Ohio and Alabama are challenging the delay in federal court.
Sue Hammerstein presides over the independent commission that is managing redistricting in Michigan for the first time this year.
“The typical process is for most state legislatures to go behind closed doors, appear one day, and say, ‘Voila! These are your maps,’” Hammerstein said. Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment that changed the process in 2018. Now, the secretary of state’s office randomly selects commissioners from more than 9,000 citizen applicants. The commission must include four Republicans, four Democrats, and five people who do not affiliate with either party.
The commission holds 16 public hearings before drawing district lines. Hammersmith said that many of those meetings last well over three hours. The commission cannot begin drawing maps until it receives the census data.
“There is plenty of work to be done in the meantime,” Hammersmith said. “We’re trying to do the best we can given the circumstances. It is what it is, and we can’t change it.”
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