The U.S. Census Bureau is aiming to deliver the long-delayed numbers used for divvying up congressional seats by the end of April, but a holdup on redistricting data could disrupt several states’ abilities to redraw their own legislative maps ahead of upcoming elections, an agency official said Wednesday.
The new goal for finishing data processing for the apportionment numbers used for congressional seats is now April 30. But a separate set of data used for redrawing districts for states and local governments won't be ready until after July in the most likely scenario, Kathleen Styles, a top bureau official, said during a presentation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The delay in the release of redistricting data could be problematic for states that have deadlines this year for redrawing their districts. New Jersey and Virginia also have elections this year.
“This is a subject of vigorous internal debate right now," said Styles, who added the statistical agency isn't saying for now when the redistricting data will be ready. “The worst thing we could do is deliver data that has question marks."
New Jersey was prepared for such a scenario, with voters last fall approving a constitutional amendment that would address late-arriving redistricting data. The constitutional amendment keeps the current legislative districts for this year's gubernatorial and legislative elections, provided a redistricting commission eventually redraws the districts by March 2022. New Jersey's primary elections are in June.
Other states have already started working on backup plans, said Ben Williams, a redistricting expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Their options include asking courts to provide relief, passing new laws or constitutional amendments changing the deadlines and changing elections dates. One other option includes using other data sets for redistricting and then reconciling those data sets with the redistricting data the Census Bureau releases after July, Williams said.
The once-a-decade census is used to determine how many congressional seats and Electoral College votes each state gets. It also is used for redrawing state and local political districts and determining the distribution of $1.5 trillion in federal spending each year.
The deadline for turning in the apportionment numbers used for congressional seats has been a moving, and litigated, target since the coronavirus pandemic upended the Census Bureau’s once-a-decade head count of every U.S. resident. The numbers were supposed to be turned in at the end of last year, but the Census Bureau requested until the end of April after the virus outbreak caused the bureau to suspend operations.
The deadline switched back to Dec. 31 after President Donald Trump issued a directive seeking to exclude people in the U.S. illegally from the numbers used for divvying up congressional seats.
President Joe Biden rescinded that order on his first day taking office last week. Government attorneys most recently had said that the numbers wouldn’t be ready until early March because the Census Bureau needed to fix data irregularities.
“This April 30 schedule reflects the Census Bureau going back in and producing a realistic schedule,” Styles said.
Irregularities in the census data are nothing new, and other censuses from decades past have had them too, Styles said.
“We have found anomalies. We will likely find more anomalies, and we will fix them as we find them," Styles said.
Mike Catalini in Trenton, N.J. contributed to this report.
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Mike Schneider, The Associated Press