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COVID-19, the Census, and Redistricting

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on the way that the Census conducts operations. Because of this impact, the U.S. Census Bureau has been forced to propose changes to its operating timeline and the dates for sending data to the President and states regarding apportionment and redistricting. The census timeline for delivering data related to apportionment and redistricting data is mandated by federal law and the U.S. Constitution. As we look forward to the 2021 redistricting cycle, we must think about how these changes will affect the League’s work to ensure People Powered Fair MapsTM while also ensuring there is a full and complete count. 

It’s important to emphasize that none of the operating timeline shifts affect the way people are self-responding and getting their households counted! Every household can respond to the Census right now through one of three ways: via phone, internet, or paper formAnswering the census is easy! And it’s something you can do right from your couch, at a safe distance from everyone outside of your home. 

Changes to the Census Timeline

The Census Bureau has continued to be transparent about the decisions they are making around their operational plan. They have continued to hold stakeholder calls, brief officials, and issue guidance to partner organizations who are helping to get out the count. Because of this transparency, partners have been able to adjust their own community outreach. Thus, what are some of the changes that the Census has had to make? 

First, The Bureau suspended 2020 Census field data collection activities in March 2020 because of COVID-19. This includes suspending opening and staffing field offices around the country. As part of Census operation and in order to ensure that everyone is counted, the Census will send individual enumerators door-to-door to households that have not responded to the Census. This helps make sure that every household in the country gets counted.  

The Census Bureau planned to reactivate field offices beginning June 1, 2020, but because states are beginning to slowly reopen and resume essential services, they have been working with local authorities to open offices and resume opening field offices throughout the month of May. Field data collection includes a variety of activities like counting group quarters, conducting update leave stateside and in Puerto Rico, counting in remote Alaska, conducting non-response follow-up, and providing additional assistance in vulnerable communities. For a full list of these activities, their descriptions, and the updated timeline for completion visit the Census Bureau’s web page.

Originally, Census planned to cease collecting data on August 31, 2020, but because of COVID-19 and the need to protect the health and safety of staff, Census will now stop collecting data on October 31, 2020. 

Once 2020 Census data collection is complete on the new operating timeline, the Census Bureau begins a lengthy, thorough and scientifically rigorous process to produce the apportionment counts, redistricting information and other statistical data products that help guide hundreds of billions of dollars in public and private sector spending per year. 

Extending the Census Window

As we stated above, the census timeline for delivering data related to apportionment and redistricting data is mandated by federal law and the U.S. Constitution. And while the Census Bureau is doing everything in their power to help ensure a full and complete count, they have to make changes in order to deliver accurate data to states and the President. In order to ensure the completeness and accuracy of the 2020 Census, the Census Bureau is seeking statutory relief from Congress with an additional 120 calendar days to deliver final apportionment counts. This means that under this plan, the Census Bureau would extend the window for field data collection and self-response to October 31, 2020, which will allow for apportionment counts to be delivered to the President by April 30, 2021, and redistricting data to be delivered to the states no later than July 31, 2021. 

What does this mean for states and redistricting? 

Delayed delivery of data means many states will have to move the timeline of their map drawing. When we review the 2011 redistricting cycle, we see that 11 states finished drawing their Congressional and 13 states finished their state map drawing by July. Many states have their map drawing timeline and filing for elections set by statute; these states will have to change their statutes because they will not have the data in time to complete map drawing by the date designated. Additionally, other states may gain or lose a congressional seat, which will affect election filings. All states will need to consider the changes to district lines caused by shifts in population. At least 18 states will need to change their state statutes or constitutional requirements dictating the timeline to redraw their maps. If states choose to use old data to draw maps, states with large population growth will likely have standing to file a “One person, One-Vote" suit under the 14th Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.  

Citizens should also be concerned about the delaying for the timeline of data delivery. A shortened timeframe could shorten the window for public comments and testimony during the map drawing process which is especially detrimental to protecting communities of interest and maintaining transparency in the redistricting process. In addition, many of the newly enacted independent redistricting commissions have a mandated number of public hearings to fulfill across their state; this could be difficult to accomplish with the shortened map drawing time period. Those interested can continue to use the League’s census action kit and redistricting action kit moving forward. 

It will be up to Congress to approve the updated dates for data delivery that the Census Bureau has requested. But it will be up to the League, our partners, and concerned citizens in every state to make sure that are building People Powered Fair Maps for every congressional, state, and local district in the country.