Last year, the United States started a process that is going to be crucial at defining the political destiny of the nation for the next decade. No, it was not the presidential election nor the COVID-19 pandemic, it was the 2020 Census. I know, a census is not the first thing that comes into mind when we think about what might change the political landscape of the country, but the dull census plays an even more important role in the US than the exciting horse races of the US presidential elections. Why is that? well, there is a simple answer: redistricting.
The U.S. is divided into 435 congressional districts, with each state having a number of seats that is proportional to its overall population. According to Article I, Section , Clause 3 of the US Constitution, this number shall be determined by a census every ten years, from that data the states also redraw their congressional districts to reflect the demographic changes that happened since the last census.
Since the U.S. lives under a federal system of government, each state decides the process to use to redraw the maps within their state. However, in order to do this, the states need to have the hard data that comes from the census on time to go through the laborious and usually contentious process of redrawing the congressional maps of each state.
This year promises to be a true headache to the state bodies in charge of creating the new political map, as the U.S. Census Bureau has said that due to challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, they would have to postpone the delivery of the statistics needed for redistricting to September 30th, six months later than the usual date of March 31st.
This delay is going to be a very tough challenge for this year’s redistricting process. First, the process is a time consuming one and it would begin with a six months delay, as the staff director fo the Colorado Independent Redrawing Commission said “you can’t draw a map until you have it”, and the short timeline would also open the possibility of a general uncertainty on the organizing of the 2022 primaries and general midterm elections.
Secondly, there are some serious questions about the legal issues associated with the delay. As reported by Politico, there are many states where the redistricting process has a deadline set by their states constitutions, a timeframe that would most likely be impossible to fulfill after the delay of the Census Bureau. Furthermore, the rushed aspect of the process could incentivize the filing of several lawsuits in the future, as a lawyer from the National Republican Redistricting Trust said to reporters in a February call.
Some states like California ordered to delay the constitutional deadline to draw the new maps, extending the new deadline to November 21st and introducing provisions in case there was a further delay from the Federal government data. Ohio has been the first state to sue the Census Bureau for the delay, and in Florida the legislature still has to appoint lawmakers to the committees in charge of the redrawing process.
There is also the political challenge inherent in this process. Both Democrats and Republicans see this process as the political battlefield it is, with Democrats creating the National Redistricting Committee and the GOP directing their efforts with the National Redistricting Republican Trust. Both parties would fight to get the most advantageous maps possible for the next ten years.
The chair of the Democrats’ committee, former Attorney general Eric Holder, has already released a statement warning that states should not use this delay as “an excuse to hold the 2022 elections on old maps because they think is political advantageous”.
Even if there appears to be a smaller set of seats that can be gerrymandered in comparison to previous processes, at least according to analysis by the Cook Political Report, redistricting would always be a heavily politicized issue since the price is just too big. It is easy to imagine how a delay in the delivery of the census data, added to litigation involved on the deadlines set by each state’s constitution can bring opportunities to each party to extract any possible political advantage in the ensuing confusion.
With a perfect storm looming in the horizon of the redistricting process, it appears that the United States would not only disagree in how to count the votes, but also in how to draw the map.