Ballot Bulletin: U.S. Census Bureau postpones release of redistricting data

Welcome to The Ballot Bulletin, where we track developments in election policy at the federal, state, and local levels. Each issue includes an in-depth feature—such as an interview or legislative analysis—and discussions of recent events relating to electoral and primary systems, redistricting, and voting provisions.

U.S. Census Bureau postpones release of redistricting data

On Feb. 12, the U.S. Census Bureau announced it would deliver redistricting data to the states by Sept. 30. This followed the bureau’s announcement on Jan. 27 that it would deliver final apportionment counts by April 30. Under its original operational timeline, the Census Bureau was scheduled to deliver apportionment counts by Dec. 31, 2020, and redistricting data by March 31.

In its statement announcing the postponement, the Census Bureau said: “In preparation for the delivery of redistricting data products, the Census Bureau has been in close coordination with each states’ official nonpartisan liaisons to understand the impacts of the delayed delivery on individual states. Since 2019, states have had access to prototype geographic support products and data tabulations from the 2018 Census Test to help them begin to design their redistricting systems. This is one tool states can use to help minimize the impact of schedule delays. In addition, the Census Bureau today completed the release of all states’ 2020 Census geographic products needed for redistricting. This will enable states to redistrict promptly upon receipt of their 2020 Census tabulation data.”

On June 16, 2020, the Census Bureau proposed postponing these deadlines due to the coronavirus outbreak. However, Congress did not act on this proposal. Subsequent litigation over a Trump administration executive order to exclude “aliens who are not in a lawful immigration status under the Immigration and Nationality Act” from the final apportionment counts resulted in further delays. 

The U.S. Census and congressional reapportionment 

The census is conducted every 10 years and kickstarts the entire redistricting process. Article I, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution requires that congressional representatives be apportioned to the states on the basis of population. The U.S. House of Representatives has 435 members. Consequently, a state may gain representatives in the House if its population grows or lose representatives if its population decreases, relative to populations in other states. 

Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Montana, North Carolina, Oregon, and Texas are all expected to gain between one and three representatives each. Meanwhile, Alabama, California, Illinois, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and West Virginia are expected to lose representatives. These estimates are subject to change. 

Federal law requires that congressional and state legislative districts have equal populations (as nearly as practicable). To meet this requirement, redistricting authorities rely on detailed Census Bureau data. 

How the states are responding 

Even before the Census Bureau’s Feb. 12 announcement, officials in California and New Jersey, anticipating delays, took steps to postpone their redistricting processes. Since Feb. 12, officials in several other states have made statements about the consequences of the postponement: 

  • California: On July 17, 2020, the California Supreme Court unanimously ordered that the state extend its constitutional and statutory deadlines for congressional and state legislative redistricting by at least four months. The court directed the California Citizens Redistricting Commission to release draft district plans by Nov. 1, 2021, and final district plans by Dec. 15, 2021. The original deadlines were July 1, 2021, and Aug. 15, 2021, respectively. The court provided for further extensions if the federal government does not provide the necessary redistricting data by July 31, 2021. 
  • Colorado: Jessika Shipley, staff director for Colorado’s redistricting commissions, said, “Basically we’re sort of panicking, and we’re not really sure what we’re going to do. We don’t have the option of just waiting and doing this for the 2024 cycle.” Colorado’s constitution requires that the commission adopt new congressional district maps by Sept. 1. Shipley said her office is weighing its options, including proposing legislation or petitioning a state court for a delay of the constitutional deadline.
  • Maine: Maine State Senate President Troy Jackson (D) said, “We’re working with the attorney general’s office to see what options we may have. We might have to go to the Maine Supreme Court to see if we could get an extension [of the June 1 deadline]. The original delay was concerning, really concerning. But this one is obviously a real problem. I think the court’s going to be sympathetic, if that’s the route we end up going, because they won’t be able to draw any maps without having any knowledge, either. Our constitution never took into account what we’re dealing with here.”
  • New Jersey: On Nov. 3, 2020, New Jersey voters approved Public Question 3, a constitutional amendment postponing state legislative redistricting until after the Nov. 2, 2021, election if the Census Bureau failed to deliver redistricting data by Feb. 15, 2021. As a result, the existing legislative district maps will remain in force until 2023. The amendment also provides for postponements in future redistricting cycles if the federal government fails to deliver census data by Feb. 15. 
  • North Carolina: On Feb. 23, Karen Brinson Bell, executive director of the state board of elections, recommended that state lawmakers postpone North Carolina’s 2022 primary election by two months (it is currently scheduled for March 8, 2022). Lauren Horsch, a representative for Senate Majority Leader Phil Berger (R), said. “Legislators are currently evaluating the impact of the delayed census on the 2021 elections. There are no plans to move the primaries.”
  • Ohio: On Feb. 25, the state of Ohio filed suit against Census officials in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Ohio. In his complaint, Ohio Solicitor General Benjamin Flowers said, “The unavailability of decennial census data irreparably harms the State: the Ohio Constitution requires the State to use decennial census data during redistricting if the data is available, and allows the use of alternative data sources only as a second-best option. By blocking the State from conducting redistricting using decennial census data, the Census Bureau’s decision prevents the State from conducting redistricting in the constitutionally preferred manner.” The state has asked that the court “issue an injunction either prohibiting the defendants from delaying the release of Ohio’s redistricting data beyond March 31, 2021, or else requiring the defendants to provide the State with Ohio’s population data at the earliest date this Court deems equitable.” The case is assigned to Judge Thomas Rose, a George W. Bush (R) appointee. 
  • Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania state Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R) said the state might have to postpone its 2022 primary, currently scheduled for May 17, 2022. “We’re not at the point where [we] have to put off the primary, but it’s something we have to consider if the data comes in so late,” Corman said.

Electoral system updates: New York City and Burlington, Vt.

New York City

Last month, New York City conducted two special elections using ranked-choice voting: one for City Council District 24 on Feb. 2 and another for City Council District 31 on Feb. 23. In the election for District 24, James Gennaro won 60.1% of the vote in the first round of voting, eliminating the need for an instant runoff.  In District 31, however, no candidate won a majority of votes in the first round of voting, triggering at least one instant runoff. The outcome of the District 31 election has yet to be determined. 

On Nov. 5, 2019, New York City voters approved a charter amendment providing for the use of ranked-choice voting in municipal primary and special elections for the following offices:

  • Mayor
  • Public advocate
  • Comptroller
  • Borough president
  • City council

Voters approved the charter amendment 73.6% to 26.4%. Now, voters can rank up to five candidates for a given office in order of preference. A candidate who wins a majority of first-preference votes wins the election outright. If no candidate wins a majority of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest first-preference votes is eliminated. First-preference votes cast for the failed candidate are eliminated, raising the second-preference choices indicated on those ballots. A new tally is conducted to determine whether any candidate has won a majority of the adjusted votes. The process repeats until a candidate wins an outright majority. 

Burlington, Vt. 

On March 2, voters in Burlington, Vt. approved a charter amendment to establish ranked-choice voting for city council elections beginning in March 2022. The measure was approved 64.4% to 35.6%.

This will not be the city’s first experience with ranked-choice voting. In 2005, Burlington voters amended the city’s charter to implement ranked-choice voting in mayoral elections. It was approved 64% to 36%. Ranked-choice voting was used in the 2006 and 2009 mayoral elections. On March 2, 2010, voters repealed this amendment 52% to 48%.

Legislation update: Redistricting, electoral systems, and primary systems bills 

Redistricting legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least 104 redistricting-related bills up for consideration in state legislatures. 

Redistricting legislation in the United States, 2021 

Current as of March 2, 2021

Electoral systems legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least 119 bills dealing with electoral systems that are up for consideration in state legislatures. 

Electoral systems legislation in the United States, 2021 

Current as of March 2, 2021

Primary systems legislation: So far this year, we’ve tracked at least 13 bills dealing with primary systems that are up for consideration in state legislatures. 

Primary systems legislation in the United States, 2021 

Current as of March 2, 2021