The Census Bureau's new plan for a delayed 2020 census — if the agency can pull it off — could mean chaos for states drawing new legislative maps next year.
Hamstrung by the coronavirus pandemic, the Census Bureau has proposed starting major field operations in June and delivering the final data for map drawing four months after its current Dec. 30 deadline. That would require a change in law for apportionment, and potentially more appropriations for a process that has already been budgeted $15.6 billion.
Even if the Census Bureau meets the new timeline, states like Virginia, New Jersey and Texas that have to draw new maps in 2021 may not meet their own deadlines, according to New York Law School professor Jeff Wice.
Wice, who has worked on redistricting cases tied to the last five census cycles, said he’s never encountered anything like this.
“This is really uncharted, unprecedented territory for the census,” Wice said. “I hope no one tries to use this to partisan advantage.”
Both Virginia and New Jersey have legislative elections in 2021 and Texas may have to send its state legislative map to a commission of state officials because of a constitutional deadline tied to its legislative session. Beyond that, Wice said the delay increases the chance that states will try and use old maps or draw them based on other data like citizenship or registered voters.
“There are a lot of questions up in the air. There is no precedent for any of this and there is no one-size-fits-all because of different laws and rules for each state,” Wice said.
For its new plan, the agency would spin up operations again in June, send out hundreds of thousands of door-knockers in August and wrap up counting in October. Then it would send the new congressional seat allocations next April, followed by the detailed data for new maps in July.
The Census Bureau has asked for a 120-day extension to its statutory deadline, according to a Democratic aide for the House Oversight and Reform Committee. The administration will brief all members of the committee next week, the aide said, after a call with committee leaders Monday.
The delayed census process could end up missing people, according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Arturo Vargas. Undercounts in Hispanic and other areas would “detrimentally undermine the communities where they live for a decade.”
“We may end up with significantly malapportioned districts as a result of the data not representing the diversity in these communities,” Vargas said.
Once the census numbers come in, there may be little states or individuals can do to change the results, according to Wice. The nation’s courts have generally rejected challenges to the Census Bureau’s process or results, he said, making it unlikely the Supreme Court would jump in to second guess the agency’s decisions in the crisis.
“Courts can always change their decisions based on new facts, and we’re certainly taking a census in 2020 unlike any census in the nation’s history. I think one thing we are learning to do is expect the unexpected,” Wice said.
Risks to the count
Before states can draw new legislative maps, the Census Bureau must actually count people, and so far the results of this year’s enumeration have lagged behind the previous census at less than 50 percent.
Census officials originally planned on about 60 percent of the households in the country responding on their own online, over the phone or through a mailed form. Response rates have lagged behind the national average so far in diverse communities and rural areas around the country.
Karthick Ramakrishnan, a University of California, Riverside professor of public policy, called the reliance on online response “a shaky set of assumptions to begin with and that is now even more of a problem when we see what the enumeration rate looks like so far.”
“Even though the online format has made the cost of enumeration lower and in principle makes it much more convenient for people, it does have a differential effect because of the digital divide,” Ramakrishnan said. “It is worrying that, potentially, if we run out of time, that not only will we have an undercount but a severe undercount among low-income communities, immigrant communities communities of color.”
Vargas said data released by the Census Bureau shows that communities with more Latino residents have responded at a lower rate to the census, which lines up with research that finds they may prefer to respond through the mail or in person. Counting diverse communities like New York at the center of the pandemic may only get harder as the year goes on.
“Given what the Bronx has been going through and Brooklyn has been going through, will the Bureau be able to go into these housing units and communities and count people?” Vargas said.
To accomplish this, the agency may need more money from Congress beyond the $15.6 billion it has already gotten — which includes a $2 billion contingency fund. House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Jose E. Serrano, D-N.Y., said in a statement he understands the need for a new timeline, but wants more information from the administration about the cost.
“In particular, I would like clearer information on the Bureau’s revised plans to ensure an accurate count of hard-to-count communities. Even during this time, we need to make sure we have a fair and accurate count,” Serrano said.