Pa. Legislature looks for path forward on redistricting, reapportionment, following census data delays

By: - February 24, 2021 3:54 pm

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Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated details of 2022 estimated timeline.  

Setbacks in processing the 2020 census data could delay Pennsylvania’s reapportionment and redistricting efforts as well as the 2022 primaries, state lawmakers learned Wednesday.

In a joint meeting of the House and Senate State Government committees Wednesday morning, legislators looked for a possible path forward following the U.S. Census Bureau’s Feb. 12 announcement that redistricting data would be delayed until Sept. 30, 2021 with possible ramifications being felt well into 2022. 

The delays have been largely attributed to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, census experts say. 

Census delay in releasing population data throws states, Pa.’s May primary into question

With the help of census and data experts, state lawmakers began exploratory efforts to identify potential paths forward for the commonwealth’s congressional reapportionment and legislative redistricting efforts. 

Wendy Underhill, director of elections and redistricting at National Conference of State Legislatures suggested a number of potential workarounds to the joint committee including:

  • Asking the state Supreme Court for relief of constitutionally mandated deadlines, 
  • Calling a special session of the General Assembly in the fall to have redistricting duties performed, 
  • Moving the state’s primary election date and candidate filing dates, 
  • Using old maps for 2021 elections,
  • Or a two-step approach that would have the Legislature perform the preparatory work (hiring a vendor, getting printers, etc.) for redistricting prior to the data’s arrival and then drawing the maps once the data arrives in the fall. 

“Organizing could be underway before the data arrives,” Underhill said, noting, “not everything works for all states.”

Underhill added that the other 49 states face the same challenges and are in the process of making decisions on their next steps, as well. 

California, Underhill noted, has already been relieved of the constitutional deadlines by the state supreme court. In New Jersey, the question of whether to use old maps for 2020 elections has gone to voters and Oregon has considered asking its supreme court for a reprieve from constitutionally mandated deadlines in the wake of the data delays. 

Many lawmakers pressed census experts for assurance that the data timeline would not change again. 

“This is a production based schedule, not a dictated schedule,” James Whitehorne, chief of the Redistricting and Voting Rights Data Office for the U.S. Census Bureau, said, “we feel that this is a really solid production schedule.”  

Whitehorne said the bureau would use that time to perform quality checks on the data, removing any duplicate records with the help of administrative records from the IRS and social security office. 

With the data still needing to be reviewed, Whitehorne called the new deadline “achievable.”

But even if the data arrives to states by the Sept. 30 deadline, it could delay map drawing efforts and finalized plans for the districts until the second quarter of 2022, state data experts agreed. 

Brent McClintock, executive director of the Legislative Data Processing Center, (LDPC) the legislative liaison to the census bureau, said “significant” delays due to COVID-19 could impact 2022 primaries. 

The projection, he said, is based on the amount of time needed for LDPC and the Pennsylvania State Data Center, another legislative liaison to the census bureau, to finalize the data and make any necessary adjustments.

When pressed by Legislators for a firmer date for when the maps would be ready to be implemented, McClintock cited the 2010 census time, estimating that plans for the state’s legislative districts would not be ready until the middle or end of May 2022.

The data, usually due to states by March 31, was delayed six months due to “COVID-19-related shifts in data collection and in the data processing schedule and it enables the Census Bureau to deliver complete and accurate redistricting data in a more timely fashion overall for the states,” a statement from the bureau reads. 

But some state lawmakers were not happy with that explanation. 

Sen. Cris Dush, R-Jefferson, citing examples of census enumeration carried out on horseback in censuses past, said he is “beyond astounded as to why this is taking so long,” calling the delays “highly questionable.”

Whitehorne countered that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic was a large cause of the delays, adding that field work for the census count was to begin last March when businesses and schools began to shutter due to COVID-19, sending college students home, closing prisons, nursing homes and hospitals to visitors and removing census enumerators from the streets until August. 

“[It was] a census unlike any other,” Whitehorne told the joint committees, adding the 2020 census was the first to be primarily digital. 

Sen. Doug Mastriano, R-Adams, who embraced election fraud falsehoods following the November general election, echoed Dush’s skepticism, saying that if humans can put a rover on Mars, we should have the census data in a reasonable amount of time. 

“I don’t buy the reasons or justifications for why it’s going to be late,” Mastriano told the committee, despite Whitehorne’s explanation for the delays.

Sen. Anthony Williams, D-Philadelphia, addressed his skeptical colleagues in his comments, “I don’t want this to be a conspiracy … I don’t want to see this online later,” he said. 

“Circumstances change almost every generation,” Williams added, noting that enslaved Black persons were counted as three-fifths of a person for the purposes of congressional representation and reapportionment until the 14th amendment was ratified in 1868, effectively repealing the measure. 

 Noting the challenges the pandemic and severe weather have placed on the 2020 count, Williams said, “This is nothing new.”

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