The process of redrawing the country’s electoral maps should already be underway.
There is just one problem: the necessary data reports are not yet ready.
The US Census Bureau announced last week that the demographics needed for the redistribution, which occurs after each ten-year count, would again be postponed to September 30, citing issues related to the Covid-19 pandemic. This will give states just under half the time to tackle the complicated task than other years, as the process must be completed before each state’s primary filing deadline so candidates know which voters they should. woo.
“He was already set to be really tough and now he’s going to be on steroids,” said Michael Li, a recutting expert and senior attorney at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law.
To complicate matters, voting rights advocates have said, this will be the first round of redistribution since the Supreme Court removed the preclearance requirement from the voting rights law that required states with a track record. of racial discrimination to prove to the Justice Department that their election cards were not drawn to dilute the power of voters of color. The shortened redistribution window leaves less time to challenge the cards in court as discriminatory, the lawyers said.
The political implications are potentially enormous. The Democratic Party currently controls both houses of Congress, as well as the White House, but Republicans have much more control over the redistribution process that could decide who returns to Washington after the mid-term of 2022. Indeed, Republicans control the majority state legislatures, where most of the map design takes place.
“Republicans could easily become a majority [in the House of Representatives] just outside of Texas, Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, ”Li said.
But Justin Levitt, electoral law expert and professor at Loyola Law School, argued that correct data is more important than timely data – and that eliminating preclearance will ultimately have a much greater impact.
“There are no questions, this is going to be disruptive,” Levitt, who worked on Justice Department suffrage cases under the Obama administration, said of the delay. “But I don’t really think it’s a disaster.”
Levitt criticized the Trump administration’s handling of the all-important tally, saying it “cuts some corners, in addition to intentional sabotage.”
“I’m actually a lot happier that the Census Bureau decided to do this right rather than doing it quickly,” Levitt said.
Each decade, coinciding with the census, states redesign their legislative maps to better reflect where people live. In most states, lawmakers draw the cards, although a few use commissions. The stakes are high: some states will win seats in Congress, while others will lose them. These limits are then set for 10 years, unless the courts intervene, and determine who votes where.
These dividing lines can exacerbate the partisan divide between MPs that voters also send to Washington. Gerrymandering, or drawing district boundaries that benefit one party rather than another, can create secure seats rather than set the stage for competitive general elections. Experts equate this with allowing politicians to choose their voters, rather than voters to choose their representatives.
While both parties gerrymander, Republicans have always been much better at it. Democrats have sought to improve their game in this arena, seeking control or at least a seat at the map drawing table, which may force a compromise in the drawing process. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced the practice of gerrymandering and is leading a left-wing redistribution group that opposes gerrymandering.
While the Supreme Court made it clear in a 2019 ruling that partisan gerrymandering does not violate federal law, racial gerrymandering is still illegal and there is often some overlap.
“You can’t gerrymander in the south without discriminating against communities of color,” Li said.
Ten states are expected to lose one seat in the United States House this year due to demographic shifts, while Texas is expected to gain three more. Florida will likely add two seats, while five other states, including Arizona and North Carolina, are expected to win one each.
In pre-pandemic years, states would have received data from the Census Bureau on an ongoing basis in February and March. The bureau said in January that it would release all data by April 30, before delaying the release of the data until the fall.
Many states will have to seek judicial or legislative extensions, as the lack of time will prevent them from meeting the deadlines set to complete their own redistribution processes. The filing deadlines for the 2022 primaries are fast approaching.
Virginia lawmakers have suggested running some state elections under the old maps thanks to the lagged data, while the West Virginia Secretary of State issued a letter to President Joe Biden calling for earlier release of the data and arguing that the delay was “undue hardship” on voters and politicians.
Li and other advocates say the states that control the one-party map-drawing process and increasingly diverse populations – like Georgia, Florida, Texas and North Carolina – are where it is condensed process could create the most headache.
“The reality is that in states like Texas and the South, the key to having fair cards is the ability to litigate, because the cards that come out of the Texas legislature are never the final cards. They are always changed by the courts, ”Li said.“ The Texas legislature has been told for five decades that it has gone too far, so the ability to advocate is crucial. ”
Typically in Texas, Li said, the maps would be drawn by June, giving lawyers six months to litigate before next year’s major hits filing period.
Levitt said he didn’t think the courts would be fooled by lawmakers passing bad district cards and noted that primaries can be moved, as many have been during the 2020 pandemic primary season.
Some are urging states to start the redistribution process now, even without the data in hand.
“While the Census Bureau’s new schedule for releasing redistricting data will pose challenges, states should now begin to take steps to ensure they conduct a transparent and fair redistribution process,” Holder said. in a statement calling for virtual hearings for public participation and announcing that it opposes any efforts to use the cards of the past decade.
Li also said the delay could provide a unique opportunity for Democrats, who have advocated for voting rights bills, including the John Lewis Voting Rights Restoration Act, which would create a preclearance system. modernized and would add redistribution rules.
“There is a window of time for Congress to act. If they do, it could be transformative. That might be the one thing that’s key to ensuring a level playing field, that elections always count, “Li said.” Otherwise, you’re going to see cards rigged in such a way that the outcome is predetermined. “