Census pushes up release of redistricting data to next week

The results will kick off flurry of congressional mapmaking — and litigation

The release of data from the 2020 census have been delayed for months amid the ongoing pandemic and decisions made by the former Trump administration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
The release of data from the 2020 census have been delayed for months amid the ongoing pandemic and decisions made by the former Trump administration. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted August 5, 2021 at 3:53pm

The Census Bureau said Thursday it will release 2020 census data used to redraw voting districts on Aug. 12, following months of delays due to the coronavirus pandemic and decisions made by the former Trump administration.

The announcement represents a four-day shift in the agency’s schedule — ahead of the agency’s self-imposed Aug. 16 deadline. The agency released the first round of census results from last year’s count — apportionment data — in April. Next week’s data release will kick off a months-long flurry of mapmaking and litigation before the 2022 midterm elections.

“The Census Bureau has been working hard to provide the highly detailed data that states need for redistricting,” James Whitehorne, the agency’s chief of the redistricting and voting rights data office, told reporters on a call Thursday.

Each decade following the decennial census, every state draws new congressional and legislative maps using the newest population data. That has become an increasingly sophisticated and legally divisive process; litigation over this round of redistricting has already started in several states, including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Louisiana.

Various obstacles caused the Census Bureau to miss its original April 1 deadline to release local, detailed demographic data used for redistricting. The agency delayed its in-person count last year by several months due to the pandemic, and then the Trump administration had the agency expedite the apportionment results in an attempt to control their distribution.

In April, the agency released those population totals — used to reshuffle the 435 seats in the House — several months late. Changes over the past decade led to Texas gaining two seats, while Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, Montana and Oregon each gained one. California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia each lost a seat.

The Census Bureau had planned to release the redistricting data as late as Sept. 30 before arriving at a mid-August date amid litigation with Ohio and Alabama.

The states argued the delay would scramble their efforts to draw new legislative maps by constitutional deadlines. Some states, such as Illinois, have drawn new maps without waiting for the 2020 data.

Alabama's and Ohio's suits are currently in a holding pattern pending the Census Bureau’s release of redistricting data. Alabama also challenged the agency’s new privacy rules, which it says will make the data too inaccurate for redistricting.

The agency has argued the new privacy rules, which change small portions of the data following an algorithm, are needed to protect individual responses in the era of big data. However, agency officials have acknowledged the process can produce inaccuracies and impossibilities at the census block level — the smallest level of geography used for legislative maps.

It also means that President Joe Biden’s pick to lead the Census Bureau, statistician Robert Santos, may not be confirmed before the release of redistricting data. The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced his nomination to the Senate floor Wednesday.