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Census Bureau's new deadline to deliver data likely to impact 2021 and 2022 elections

The Census Bureau recently announced another delay and now plans to deliver redistricting data to states by September 30, promising this would be the last time the date slips. COVID-19 dragged out census data collection and processing well beyond their original deadlines in late 2020, making it more difficult for states and candidates to plan for elections in 2021 and 2022. 

The Census Bureau usually rolls out the decennial data on a staggered schedule, but this year all of the states will receive it at the same time. 

However, the Bureau says it will make its April 30 deadline for delivery of the apportionment data that will determine how many congressional seats a state gets. 

The new timeline causes the most immediate complications for Virginia, which is one of two states that holds elections later this year. Its recently elected independent commission for redistricting has not yet decided whether to try and draw new maps with the latest data in time for the 2021 races, or to keep the current configuration. 

New Jersey, the other state with 2021 elections, passed an amendment to postpone redistricting.

Rhode Island Governor and Commerce Secretary nominee Gina Raimondo, who will oversee the Census Bureau if she's confirmed, vowed to rely on the experts and said "if they advise that more time is necessary, then I'm going to follow the lead of their expertise."

Twelve states require redistricting to be completed this year, including some that are expected to lose congressional seats, such as Illinois and Michigan, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

The NCSL offered a few suggestions for these states to help them meet their compressed deadlines: ask courts for relief (which California has already done), alter redistricting deadline laws, change filing deadlines or primary dates, use the best data available at the time and create a two-step redistricting process, or appoint a backup commission in charge if deadlines are missed.

All states must complete congressional redistricting before the 2022 elections. In states that seem to be unable to finalize their districts in time, voters may ask the courts to intervene. 

That's what happened in New York in 2011, when a panel of federal judges appointed a special master to oversee the process and make recommendations about how the districts should be drawn. The approved map came just one day before candidates could start collecting signatures to get on a primary ballot. 

"Each state will play it differently. But because the data will be in someone's hands in the state by end of September this year, that should provide enough time for everyone to have new lines in place for 2022," said Jeffrey Wice, a Democratic redistricting expert. 

As states weigh their alternatives, the landscape remains hazy for the 2022 U.S. House races, in part because some of the politicians considering a run don't yet know what districts they'll be running in. 

Republican Christina Hagan, for instance, was considering a primary challenge against GOP incumbent Anthony Gonzales in Ohio's 16th District after he voted to impeach former President Trump, prompting a  backlash from local Republicans. For now, though, Hagan says she's waiting to see what the contours of the district will be, since Ohio is expected to lose a congressional seat. 

"To go to war effectively, you need to know what the warpath looks like," she said, adding that her decision could be impacted by district vacancies if any congressional members run for Senator Rob Portman's open seat.

New York's 11th is viewed as the most conservative district in New York City and was just flipped by Republican Nicole Malliotakis in 2020. It's possible that it could be redrawn to include more of Brooklyn, making it friendlier to Democrats. Max Rose, the Democrat who lost his re-election bid to Malliotakis and is now working in the Biden administration as a coronavirus adviser in the Pentagon, has not said if he'll run in 2022.

"We can never stop recruiting," said Jessica Patterson, the California Republican Party Chair. "Depending on how these lines get drawn or the retirements that may come up, we will have individuals to be able to fit into those slots."

Democrats currently hold a five-seat majority in the House, and Republicans are leaning on the number of GOP-controlled state legislatures for an advantage to win more seats via redistricting. Texas, Florida and North Carolina are all poised to gain congressional seats — and they're all under GOP control for the redistricting process.

Combined, the states are expected to add seven congressional seats. Meanwhile, several Midwestern and Northeastern states are expected to lose a seat. The gain in Southern seats, which tend to be won by Republicans, and the loss of seats in the more Democratic-leaning Midwest and Northeast poses a serious threat to the Democratic House majority. 

"We're going to ensure that the rules and procedures are followed to maximize our opportunities," National Republican Congressional Committee Chairman Tom Emmer said in an unveil of their 2022 strategy.

Allen West, who chairs the Texas Republican Party, was more blunt about the GOP-run legislature's advantage.

"They must realize this strategic opportunity and not concern themselves with 'fairness' to the progressive socialist left," he said in an email to supporters.

Republicans control congressional maps in 18 states, while Democrats control seven states, the Brennan Center's Michael Li notes. The other half of the states either have split legislatures or utilize independent or bipartisan commissions to draw the maps. 

When either Republicans or Democrats have unilateral control of drawing the maps, they often engage in  gerrymandering, creating bizarrely-shaped districts that are politically advantageous to their party. Maps have been challenged in state courts over violations of the Voting Rights Act and "racial gerrymanders," or districts drawn to split the voting power of majority-minority communities. 

The Texas legislature ends its regular session on May 31, months before any redistricting data will be delivered. It's possible Republican Governor Greg Abbott could end up calling a special session for the legislature or have a redistricting board — composed of all Republican officials — adopt its own redistricting plan. 

Li says that the census data delays could "significantly increase the risk of abuses" if short special sessions are called to draw maps and there's less time for public input or challenges. 

Former Attorney General and national Democratic redistricting committee chair Eric Holder warned against any state using the new timeline as a "pretext" to hold 2022 elections on old maps for political advantage, or for "drawing maps in secret with no public input."

"I will oppose any such efforts," Holder said in a statement. "The most important thing the Census Bureau can do is to spend this additional time using every resource available to them to make the count as accurate as possible. I am confident that they can do so."

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