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A Delay In Census Results Would Hinder States' Redistricting Efforts

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're nearing the end of the year 2020. We'll give you a moment to cheer and then mention that we're also nearing the end of a census year. In 2021, all 50 states would normally use census information to redraw the district lines for state legislatures, and that's why it's a big deal that some critical information that they need is delayed. It's especially a rush for New Jersey and Virginia. NPR's Hansi Lo Wang covers the census and starts our coverage. Hansi, good morning.

HANSI LO WANG, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So this is information about who lives where, in which neighborhoods across every state. Why is this information behind schedule?

WANG: Two main reasons for that. The pandemic delayed census plans for months, and that means the Census Bureau has been on track to miss the legal reporting deadline for that detailed demographic data states need to redraw voting districts. They're supposed to be delivered to the states by the end of March at the latest. It's not clear if the bureau can do that because of COVID-19 and because of a second big factor - the Trump administration, which pressured the Census Bureau to shorten the census schedule, cut back on quality checks on the results. And the bureau has recently discovered irregularities in the census records they need to try to fix, and it's not clear how long that will take.

INSKEEP: So by trying to rush the census, they've ended up slowing it down, is what I think you're telling me. How is that affecting the states?

WANG: A lot of states are on pins and needles right now. They need this new census data to start the process of redrawing voting districts, and any major delays can really gum up their schedules. Virginia and New Jersey are in really tough spots because they're set to hold elections next year. You know, this is a very unusual situation because the Census Bureau first announced back in April that they were not going to deliver census results on time, so officials in Virginia and New Jersey started making backup plans.

INSKEEP: Well, let's hear more about the plans in those states from reporters who are there. VPM's Ben Paviour starts us off in Richmond, Va.

BEN PAVIOUR, BYLINE: All 100 members of Virginia's House of Delegates are up for election next year.

REBECCA GREEN: You know, I have confidence that the census numbers will come out this spring in time for Virginia to run its process.

PAVIOUR: Rebecca Green teaches election law at the College of William & Mary. Green says in order to redistrict in time for primaries, Virginia needs the census data by May. And if the numbers are late...

GREEN: I think it's always safe to say that there could be a court battle.

PAVIOUR: There's a chance courts could force three elections in a row - one on the old lines, a special election on new lines in 2022, then back to the usual cycle in 2023. Marcus Simon is a Democratic lawmaker.

MARCUS SIMON: Raise money, hire campaign staff and, basically, run continuously for 36 months - there'd be no break.

PAVIOUR: He's skeptical the stars will align for Virginia to finish everything this year.

SIMON: So far with the census, it's followed Murphy's Law, which is that anything that can go wrong has.

PAVIOUR: Adding to the uncertainty is a new redistricting process. It used to be lawmakers who drew the maps. Virginia voters approved a bipartisan commission with the goal of drawing fairer lines. A panel of retired judges got the ball rolling a few weeks ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PAMELA BASKERVILL: Morning, Judge Pugh.

DAVID PUGH: Oh, I'll tell you, I'm not a master scientist on how to turn my computer on. So I've had a lot of problems.

PAVIOUR: Tech glitches aside, the judges moved quickly. They approved an application to serve on the new commission. Eight of the slots are reserved for lawmakers and eight for citizens, people like Maya Castillo.

MAYA CASTILLO: (Laughter) I'm just crossing my fingers. It's something that I really, really want to do and really feel passionate about.

PAVIOUR: Castillo is the political director for New Virginia Majority, a progressive group. She became interested in redistricting in 2010 in her old state of Arizona.

CASTILLO: They were drawing my home that my family had lived in for generations into a district that I didn't see as my home.

PAVIOUR: Castillo, who is Latina, hopes to bring some diversity to the table. Most of the applicants so far have been white. If she makes the cut, she'll meet the rest of the commission at their first meeting next month.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Paviour.

JOE HERNANDEZ, BYLINE: And I'm Joe Hernandez. In New Jersey, officials decided to wait to redraw new legislative maps, taking the opposite approach from Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I will call this meeting to order.

HERNANDEZ: Back in the summer, Democratic lawmakers proposed delaying redistricting for two years if the census data didn't arrive by February 15. The change took the form of a constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Miriam.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Morning.

HERNANDEZ: During a hearing on the ballot question, lawmakers said it was the safest bet to ensure the state didn't have to scramble to redraw maps in time for the June primary. Here's Democratic State Assemblyman Raj Mukherji.

RAJ MUKHERJI: It's the least bad of all of the options.

HERNANDEZ: The ballot question passed by a wide margin in November, but voting rights activists say it was the wrong move.

JESSE BURNS: February 15 was really unnecessarily early.

HERNANDEZ: Jesse Burns is executive director of the League of Women Voters of New Jersey.

BURNS: We've received that data past February 15 before, and we've had to move the primary just slightly to accommodate for it.

HERNANDEZ: She says another big problem is that population changes won't be reflected in state electoral maps until 2023. Some districts have grown, while others have shrunk. And Burns says the state's Latino and Asian populations have increased over the last decade.

BURNS: So what we have for two years now is a map that does not reflect one person, one vote, where folks are getting their rightful representation.

HERNANDEZ: But the state's top Democratic lawmaker says that's just the hand New Jersey's been dealt. State Senate President Steve Sweeney is one of the 10 members on the state's reapportionment commission.

STEVE SWEENEY: I would rather do the redistricting now, but the reality is that there's not a chance.

HERNANDEZ: Sweeney says the state has asked the Trump administration about getting the census data early, as in past years, but the bureau says the pandemic makes that unlikely.

SWEENEY: Because the federal government wouldn't cooperate with us, it made it almost impossible for us to get it done in time.

HERNANDEZ: Sweeney says the state could redraw the maps in time if it gets the data by Valentine's Day. There might be a chance of that in a normal year. This year is anything but that.

INSKEEP: All right, that was Joe Hernandez from our member station WHYY and my former station WBGO bringing the story in New Jersey. We also heard from Virginia. And our colleague Hansi Lo Wang, who covers the census, is still on the line. And, Hansi, what is at stake here as these lines are drawn?

WANG: Well, Steve, when we're talking about census numbers, what we're really talking about is power, political power, and who gets their share of political power through this process of redrawing voting districts that determine elections for the next 10 years, all the way down to the local level. Given all the changes we've seen this year by the Trump administration to the census schedule and because of the pandemic, this is going to be a really tricky process in 2021. And I'm expecting to see potential legal challenges that can make this process even more complicated.

INSKEEP: NPR's Hansi Lo Wang. Thanks so much.

WANG: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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